5 May 2007 to 30 June 2007

30 June 2007

He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night's sweet bird.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Trip, fall down and BAM! ... sprained ankle and a hairline fracture in the scaphoid bone, near the base of the thumb. Sometimes it doesn't pay to go out of state.

The Maeve Gilchrist Trio is Reaching Me with a mix of traditional, original, vocal and instrumental pieces, Sherrill Fulghum says. "While the accent of many singers disappears when they sing, Maeve's brogue comes through very clearly here."

Billy Bennington's music is revived through The Barford Angel. "The Barford Angel was Bennington's only solo album and was compiled with the help of his widow shortly after his death," Sherrill explains. "This recording is a dulcimer fan's delight."

Eleanor Shanley and Ronnie Drew maintain an excellent standard on El Amor De Mi Vida (The Love of My Life). "With De Danaan, Eleanor Shanley had that magic in vocal ability and interpretation. She went solo and entranced us," says Nicky Rossiter. "She teamed up with the quintessential Dubliner, Ronnie Drew, and gave us the musical proof that just like sweet and sour works in food, the mixture of sweet and gutsy works in music."

Virginia Wagner delves into love and loss with Darkness Visible. "If it's necessary to have experienced the subject matter of one's compositions -- however dubious such a proposition is -- then Virgina Wagner has waded waist deep into Big Love and pushed on," Kevin McCarthy says. "With her latest release, Darkness Visible, she attends to the minefield of relationships gained and then mostly lost. She sings of achingly easy attraction followed by tangled departure, keynoting the intricacies of the human tango."

Likewater -- the Canadian songwriting duo Jennifer Claveau and Eric Newby -- is virtually Weightless on this recording. "The melodies and arrangements are perfectly interpreted by two guitars, bass and drums, and the nine self-crafted songs are bound to haunt their listeners all over the world," Adolf Goriup says. "There's no need to say I loved the CD. The only trouble is that it only lasts about 40 minutes, so you just have to press the replay button."

Jeff Talmadge is kicking back in Blissville, and he invites everyone to drop by and set a spell. "Talmadge has a mature and consistent sound that is a far cry from 'new,' and in this case, that's a welcome quality," says C. Nathan Coyle. "Sometimes it doesn't matter if you've heard something similar, as long as it's an enjoyable and fulfilling experience. Talmadge manages to take familiar stories and tell them in a manner that makes them better than new -- he makes them comfortable."

John Dyer overproduces the music on GoStayPlay. "Dyer's experiments with arrangements call too much attention to themselves," says Michael Scott Cain. "Rather than extend the arrangements, these intrusions wreck them."

Folk musics from around the world come together for A New Groove from Putumayo. "Putumayo, a label known for its explorations of folk music from around the globe, is stretching the definition of world music with this album of dance grooves," Gregg Thurlbeck says. "Confining itself, for the most part, to European and North American club beats, A New Groove is a less ambitious disc than it might have been. That's not to say this is a dull collection; there's plenty of intriguing music here from artists including Thievery Corporation, Cat Empire and k-os. But why is there no African groove? Where is the Asian dance beat?"

Otis Taylor marks the Definition of a Circle -- with a little help from a friend. "Definition of a Circle is just seven seconds into the opening track when guest Gary Moore announces his presence with a screaming guitar note that clearly states, 'this is not your standard blues album,'" Gregg says. "But then combining one of the blues' most enigmatic talents with this ex-Thin Lizzy rocker is certain to produce a sound that's anything but sedate."

SwingBridge offers music "as diverse as Celtic, country, blues, swing jazz, Cajun, pop" and more on The Early Years, Dave Howell says. "That might be a bit much for an EP. But what ties these eight tracks together is the laidback feel. ... It's the kind of easy listening you can visit over and over."

Wil Owen takes us along to see Loreena McKennitt perform in Oakland, California. Who wants front-row seats for this one?!

Orson Scott Card, best known for his groundbreaking 1985 novel Ender's Game, disappoints with his latest novella. "Space Boy, like Ender's Game, is a fast-paced adventure with a young male protagonist. But that's about as far as the comparison goes," Gregg Thurlbeck says. "Space Boy may be fun when considered as a juvenile novella, but unlike Ender's Game it doesn't reach beyond YA's boundaries in an attempt to be something more. It's a tale with obviously limited ambitions."

S.D. McKee's protagonist is having a really bad day -- of intergalactic proportions -- in Defeated, the first book of Darkness Among the Stars. "McKee really lets his imagination run wild with the alien technology, giving readers some of the most memorable spaceships ever dreamed of," Daniel Jolley says. "They prove just as impressive in action as they do in appearance, making for some thrilling scenes of military warfare in space."

Beverly Lewis peers into the Amish lifestyle with Annie's People, of which The Preacher's Daughter is the first volume. "It's easy to see why Beverly Lewis has established herself at the top of the Christian fiction genre," says Corinne H. Smith. "Her descriptions are vivid and her characters come alive with believability. Readers become so engrossed in the action on the pages that when they lift their eyes or close the book, it takes them a few seconds to come back to their own reality."

Paul Levine is ready to Kill All the Lawyers. "Levine is on a roll with this witty and brash new series set in Miami and its environs: in the courthouse, in the Keys and other places Floridian," Jean Marchand says. "This series is a must-read for lovers of action, good dialogue and sparkling characters. The writing reminds me of Robert B. Parker and Janet Evanovich, with a dash of Anne Tyler thrown in."

Lynn Veach Sadler deeply touched reviewer Barbara Spring with Foot Ways. "Longing pervades Foot Ways the way mist settles in mountain valleys," Barbara says. "Foot Ways is a delicious book and it left me wishing for more; it tasted of Southern cooking and Southern folklore."

James Patterson tells a different kind of love story through Sam's Letters to Jennifer. "Sam's Letters to Jennifer will definitely not be for your average Patterson fan," Wil Owen warns. "This novel will contain too much sentimental sap for them."

Classic horror fiction gets a graphic touch with the Graphic Classics spotlight on H.P. Lovecraft. "Lovecraft's prose is cumbersome in its detail by today's literary tastes, but his style and outre ideas are so powerful that shudders still await readers here, despite the minimalistic art," says Michael Vance. "Despite its limitations, this is a must-have volume for Lovecraft and horror fans."

The Girls series by Joshua and Jonathan Luna wraps up with Extinction. "It occurred to me while reading Extinction ... that this story really isn't about a horde of identical gorgeous naked alien girls seducing men, laying eggs and feeding women to a giant sperm monster," Tom Knapp says. "It's about people, and how they react when the chips are down."

Ezra is "a short, powerful, formerly dead adventuress who borrowed her hair from Red Sonja, her complexion from Lady Death and her attitude from Xena," Tom says. In The Egyptian Exchange, "the art by Alfonso Ruiz isn't bad, if you like pale-skinned teeny-bopper cheesecake. The story by Sean O'Reilly, however, is pretty awful."

The Setting Sun signals the end of Warren Ellis's run on Hellblazer. "This book is definitely for readers who've already fallen under Constantine's spell," Tom says. "If I'd read this book first, I doubt I'd have been moved to look up other Hellblazer titles; it just doesn't knock your socks off enough to pull you back for more. But for those of us who're already hooked, it's a nice, short shot of Constantine's further adventures."

The God War in Ultimate Fantastic Four #7 left Tom feeling "both overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the same time -- which is a pretty neat trick, when you think about it. ... Sure, it all boils down to the introduction of cosmic archvillain Thanos into the Ultimate world, but by that point I was already yearning for something else to read. And that, my friends, rarely happens to me when I've got an Ultimate book in my hands."

Glenn Yeffeth leads the charge in an examination of a landmark titled The War of the Worlds: Fresh Perspectives on the H.G. Wells Classic. "Some of the essays approach the topic with humor, some are more scholarly in approach," Laurie Thayer says. "I have raved before about how much I enjoy the BenBella Smart Pop series of books. I found this entry in the series to be a little different though -- less amusing and more somber, undoubtedly due to the text under examination."

John L. Herman Jr. riffs on a classic with The Innkeeper Tales: Modern-Day Canterbury Tales to Entertain, Enlighten & Empower. "The Innkeeper Tales is an engaging memoir tucked within a well-crafted fictional framework," says Corinne H. Smith. "It should appeal most often to male readers, especially those Renaissance men who have had and admire folks with varied personal histories."

S. Thomas Summers "is a poet of the everyday, the ordinary," says Michael Scott Cain. "His favorite tactic for attaching significance is loading the commonplace with Biblical imagery. ... In all, Death Settled Well is a mixed bag and Summers is, at this point, a promising poet who hasn't quite achieved his potential." Hey, Michael, that's review #50!

Eric Hughes joins the staff today with this look at The 40-Year-Old Virgin. "From the opening minute of director Judd Apatow's strong theatrical debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the title character's sexual frustration is blindingly and, quite frankly, uncomfortably clear," Eric says. "What separates Virgin from most mainstream comedies, though, is Apatow's rejection of the traditional sex comedy that seems to proliferate the industry these days -- the American Pie series and Old School come to mind. Albeit funny in parts, these comedies often lack elements that are essentially necessary to make any movie, and not just comedy, great: character development, drama and heart, all of which Apatow works in masterfully during the film's 116-minute runtime."

Daniel Jolley offers a warning along with his review of Stay Alive. "I know the plot sounds pretty stupid -- and, frankly, it is pretty stupid -- but you can still get a kick out of Stay Alive; you just have to cast logic and realism aside and just have fun with what this movie gives you," he says. "If you can't do that, though, you will undoubtedly hate every single thing about it."

More's on the way! (Meanwhile, take a peek at the archives of past editions, below.)

16 June 2007

Animals have these advantages over man: they never hear the clock strike, they die without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills.
- Voltaire

Today's edition is a little larger than usual to tide everyone over because -- it's sad, I know -- there will not be a June 23 update. Sorry about that, but life intrudes! We'll be back with another weekly selection of new reviews on June 30, so be well 'til then. Cheers!

Robert Harbron and Emma Reid feature New Dogs, Old Tricks on this "charmingly crisp and lucid recording," says Mike Wilson. "New Dogs, Old Tricks is an enjoyable collection of tunes and songs, impeccably executed by two talented musicians. It doesn't try to do anything extravagant -- and it doesn't need to. It's pretty much perfect!"

Jeff Moore serves up a slice of Irish music, Texas-style, on The Dove's Perch. "If there is anything Moore is not doing right here, I am happy to report that it's escaped my ear," Jerome Clark reports. "Most of the material is traditional, and the rest is so firmly ensconced in tradition that you have to consult the notes to tell the difference."

Jed Marum is ready to Cross Over the River, taking his folk-Irish roots to address the American Civil War. "Marum gives us history in song and music that is every bit as powerful and awe-inspiring," Nicky Rossiter says. "He has a wonderful facility for taking these stories of ordinary people and big events and making them real."

Women in Docs, an Australian folk duo, "has released what is easily one of my favorite CDs that I have had the pleasure of listening to in 2006," Wil Owen says. "Under a Different Sky showcases 11 tracks spanning the range of genres from folk to a modern alternative punk tune. ... If I had one complaint, it would be that the entire CD only clocks in at just over 37 minutes -- long enough to whet your appetite, but not enough to satiate your hunger once you get a taste."

Jonathan Byrd draws on the spirits of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen for This is the New That. "Unfortunately," says Michael Scott Cain, "Byrd hasn't quite worked his way beyond his influences yet."

Penny Lang conjures Stone+Sand+Sea+Sky with this folk gem from Canada. "From the beautifully arranged and produced opener, 'Sudden Waves,' the listener will free fall into the wonderful laidback yet confident style on offer here," Nicky Rossiter says.

Langhorne Slim can be found singing When the Sun's Gone Down. "Langhorne Slim's voice is amazing. It's not beautiful, or elegant, or even familiar," Sarah Meador says. "It lives in the wastelands of sounds somewhere between a mountain lion's scream and a half-tuned banjo. And when he slows down a little, it can be heard to trip over the slightest cracks in a composition. But it never falls, even going over the roughest tunes, and from the first syllable of 'In the Midnight,' that voice rocks."

Pure Prairie League's music comes All in Good Time for those who've been waiting. "More than 20 years have passed since Pure Prairie League released its Mementos album, so yes, this new recording has been a while in coming," says Corinne H. Smith. "Longtime fans with memories of the 1970s and early '80s will enjoy listening to these songs and thinking of the good old days. ... Newcomers to Pure Prairie League may decide that these country-rockers are now landing firmly on the country side of the fence."

The Virginia Ramblers, which began life as Alvin Breeden & the Virginia Cutups, are back with a splash on this self-titled release. "I love traditional bluegrass and, most of all, I love traditional bluegrass when it's done so well that, as I hear it, I am reminded why it won my heart in the first place," Jerome Clark says. "The Virginia Rambles do that for me. While they're all accomplished pickers, they play no more notes than are called for to express the emotion the piece seeks to convey; thus, every one of those notes has to count, and does."

Jay Boy Adams throws open The Shoe Box for a little music. "It's fitting that Jay Boy Adams should choose to revive Jesse Winchester's 1978 song 'Showman's Life,' and not just because these two rooted singer-songwriters are both, well, showmen," Jerome says. "Adams actually sounds a bit like Winchester -- born in Memphis, long a resident in Montreal -- if Winchester had been raised in West Texas. If Adams lacks Winchester's exquisite melodicism, he matches him in his seamless integration of folk, rock, blues, country and gospel into a coherent, engaging musical style."

Harper takes it Day by Day in this introduction of didgeridoo-inflected Australian blues. "Harper's music is primal. It goes way inside, creating honest, deeply felt emotions. It is joyful and painful at the same time," says Michael Scott Cain. "And another thing -- Harper's music is is essential. It should be widely heard."

Suzzana Owiyo pays homage to Mama Africa with this recording in Luo, Swahili and a little bit of English. "Language is not a bar to enjoying the original and evocative dozen tracks on this album," John Lindermuth says. "Owiyo has a lovely and powerful voice that, combined with her skillful orchestration, makes her an individual force to be reckoned with. Her music fuses traditional and contemporary beats."

Moira Smiley & VOCO blends folk and Eastern European influences on Blink. "Even without their imagination, the wonderful singing and arrangements would make this a top-notch CD," Dave Howell says. "But in a musical world where too many artists sound alike, Blink should be at the top of the list for those who appreciate groups that have a vision for their music."

Greg Chako is making the music on Two's Company, Three's a Crowd. "If you like jazz, you will love this," Nicky Rossiter promises. "This is a wonderful album for a relaxing night in or a laidback party soundtrack."

We have two performance reports to share with you today. First, Corrine Smith tells us about a double bill featuring Poco and Pure Prairie League in Champion, Pennsylvania. And, next, Ellen Rawson describes the experience of seeing a triple feature, with Lisa Knapp, Jenna Reid and Gwenan Gibbard, in Guildford, England. Both events sound like a hoot and a holler, so check them out!

Charles de Lint returns to Newford in Little (Grrl) Lost. "Although written for young adults, Little (Grrl) Lost will also appeal to older readers who enjoy de Lint's Newford tales," Tom Knapp says. "Framed by magic and mystery in a thoroughly modern world, the story at its heart is entirely human."

J.B.B. Winner earns kudos galore for The Strand Prophecy. "Let me just come right out and say I freakin' loved The Strand Prophecy," says Daniel Jolley. "Adult science-fiction fans should certainly enjoy the nonstop action, but The Strand Prophecy should also appeal strongly to young-adult readers. You really get the best of both worlds here."

Anne and Todd McCaffrey return to Pern for Dragon's Fire. "Despite the title, in Dragon's Fire, dragons and their riders are not the focus of the book," Laurie Thayer informs. "Instead, a mute Harper, a journeyman miner and a Holdless girl are the main characters. As their storylines intertwine, we see a quite different side of Pernese society."

Nolene-Patricia Dougan takes readers on "an ambitious, wildly entertaining romp through history that manages to rewrite vampiric lore in the process" with her novel Vrolok, says Daniel Jolley. "There is a true abundance of riches worked into the plot of this extraordinary novel. It's unlike any vampire story I've ever read, and that is why I found Vrolok to be such an immensely enjoyable, fascinating read."

Anne Bishop returns to the Realms of the Black Jewels Trilogy with Dreams Made Flesh, a collection of four novellas. "Fans of the original trilogy will no doubt welcome this addition to Bishop's Realms," Laurie Thayer says. "Those who have not read the original trilogy may find it confusing. My recommendation is to read the trilogy first -- but it's a brilliant, compelling series, so that shouldn't be a hardship."

David Clement-Davies tackles the lore of the red deer of Scotland in Fire Bringer. "Clement-Davies in Fire Bringer has woven a complex adventure tale that features elements from King Arthur, the Bible and many other epics," Chris McCallister says. "Fire Bringer is beautifully written, with powerful characterizations and a strong power to evoke images of the setting. While the symbolism is strong, it never overwhelms the tale."

Mercedes Lackey makes an offering of The River's Gift, and Jennifer Mo says it's "fluffy, even by Lackey standards. ... The plot is also predictable, though charming in a slight sort of way."

The Eternals are a Jack Kirby creation from the 1970s that fizzled, but Neil Gaiman has brought them back and reimagined them for a modern audience. "Let me be frank: I've never been a fan of Kirby's inventions that, for all their purported godly origins, were just your average, oddly costumed superheroes," Tom Knapp says. Gaiman, however, "successfully remakes the Eternals in a way that honors Kirby's source material while shoehorning them into the Marvel Universe in a way that makes sense -- something Kirby himself was unable to do."

John Constantine's supporting character Papa Midnite tells his story in this stand-alone run, but Tom can't muster much enthusiasm for it. "We're not supposed to like young Midnite when we meet him in pre-Revolution New York, but perhaps writer Mat Johnson went overboard in making the young traitor entirely despicable and unsympathetic. Hell, the young mystic is forced to kill his own sister, and I still couldn't manage to work up any sympathy for him. By the time Midnite summoned an incarnation of the African god Anansi -- as a big, goofy rabbit, more like Bugs Bunny than a fearful deity -- I was just wishing this arc would end and we'd get back to John and his tricks."

Mark Allen grabs some popcorn and settles in with Cowboys & Aliens for an afternoon's fun. "Being a fan of well-done western and science-fiction comics, I immediately recognize that a combination of the two genres is not a natural," Mark says. "Combine a fun story with the bold lines and clear, expressive style of artist Luciano Lima, with assists by Magic Eye studios, and you have an all-around entertaining venture. Cowboys & Aliens is highly recommended."

The plot of Nicholas Mahler's Lone Racer is easy enough to follow, says C. Nathan Coyle. "The art ... I don't know whether to call Mahler's style cartoonish, stylistic, oversimplified or just plain odd."

Michael Vance gets caught up in Vampirella vs. the Cult of Chaos. "Vampirella is all about the costume, and her scanty clothing is all about lust," says Michael. "Nevertheless, under writer Archie Goodwin's pen, her adventures were more about the writer's homage to the myths created by horror writers H.P. Lovecraft and Bram Stoker."

James Browning Kepple and Kim Gorannson join their work in the new poetry collection Couplet. "Couplet is an ingenious object: two poets' respective collections printed back to back," says Ailbhe Darcy. "Each poem is faced, not with a blank page, but with the other poet's upside-down poem. Hey, it saves paper."

Daniel Jolley has a hard time leaving My Super Ex-Girlfriend. "I actually enjoyed this movie more than I expected to, as it does deliver a steady diet of laughs throughout," he says. "It's nothing to write home about, but it's not a bad way to spend an hour and a half, either."

The work that led up to Truman Capote's novel In Cold Blood is explored in the film Capote. "What follows is a fascinating series of images and conversations that work on several levels," says Miles O'Dometer. "On one level, they capture the intensity of a researcher -- make that two researchers -- at work; on another, they capture the personality of Capote himself -- a man who could be simultaneously sensitive and insufferable; who loved his friends but hated seeing them get the spotlight; who preached the need for honesty in research, but went on to deceive (Perry) Smith shamelessly in order to get the story he wanted."

More's on the way! (Meanwhile, take a peek at the archives of past editions, below.)

9 June 2007

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

It's a Hersheypark Happy kind of day!

Chrissy Crowley bursts into the Cape Breton fiddle scene with this self-titled CD. "The arrangements feature Chrissy's deft hand on fiddle, with support from the standard backing duo of piano and guitar. And, if it's possible to judge a musician by the people who surround and support her, Chrissy has a long and rich career ahead of her," Tom Knapp says. "It's a 'Who's Who' of grand Cape Breton proportions."

Rory McCarthy & the Preycawns offer up a combination of traditional and new songs on When is Daddy Coming Home. "McCarthy is essentially a singer in the sean-nos tradition, but his voice will convert even those who might run a mile from such a style," Nicky Rossiter says. "This is a great album that should get a wider audience. (For those who are not familiar with Gaelic, preycawns are crows and as we all know crows can't sing -- well, maybe in Cork they can.)"

Sara Wendt grabs hold of Risa Duff with Here's Us. "One thing that always grabs me is an instant infectious hook in a song, and all six tracks on this CD (more of an EP, really) can certainly be considered of that poptastically infectious calibre," Risa says. "These are the sort of tracks you would like to hear in your car or chilling out at home, the kind you would find yourself humming subliminally when you least expect it."

Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin fall in line to find the Lost John Dean. "Recorded in six days, including mixing, with the artists doing the instrumental tracks at the same time they laid down their vocals -- no changes, edits or overdubs -- Lost John Dean has a loose, friendly, down-home vibe to it," says Michael Scott Cain. "Close your eyes and Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin are in your living room, open guitar cases on the floor, instruments in their laps as they sit in a circle and play and sing for you."

The Asylum Street Spankers insist that Mommy Says NO! on this album of children's music -- for adults. "Mommy Says NO! is a delightfully odd album that has something for everyone," says C. Nathan Coyle. "It's a children's album that's also geared to adults. Rarely does something 'all-ages' actually satisfy all ages, but the Asylum Street Spankers certainly succeed."

Catherine Howe makes her mark on Princelet Street. "The East End of London has been featured in just about every media possible, from the infamous Ripper murders of the 1880s to the acclaimed Brick Lane novel. Now it features on an album of beautiful music from an expatriate of the area that has since moved north, from urban to rural," Nicky Rossiter says. "This is a marvelous collection of songs with diverse backgrounds, dates and deliveries, but all are worth a close listen."

Paul & Storm seem content with their lot as an Opening Band. "Their humor could be compared to folk groups such as the Arrogant Worms or Barenaked Ladies, as well as music you might hear from Dr. Demento," Dave Townsend says. "And along with their fun sense of humor, they also have some great harmonies."

The Lenny Solomon Band "defies being pigeonholed" on Maybe Today, Nicky Rossiter opines. "There are echoes of folk, bits of country, snippets of pop and strains of blues on offer over 14 tracks. ... Solomon has a knack for writing good lyrics worth listening to and delivering them with a good tune, whether it be lively or sad."

After a checkered history, Luckenbach! Compadres! (Songs of Luckenbach, Texas) makes its debut. Jerome Clark explains its past and the changes it survived before making it to the shelves in this review. Meanwhile, he notes: "Since the early 1970s Texas has harbored what, for want of a better phrase, we'll call an alternative-country -- not necessarily to be confused with trad-country -- scene. It thrives virtually on its own, with many of its practitioners, nearly all of them singer-songwriters, unknown outside its borders. The more ambitious performers may cross those borders in search of a larger regional following elsewhere in the Southwest. Not, I infer, all that many; this scene is startlingly self-contained and self-sustained, with an audience possessed of fiercely tribal loyalties."

Dave Hole has a well-polished Rough Diamond after 20 years in the blues clubs in Perth, Australia. "He's a good writer. His original songs soar, with neat but natural metaphors and good progressions, and his solos will blow you away," says Michael Scott Cain. "Hole never seems to play what you're anticipating; he takes it in a different direction, playing against, rather than to, your expectations."

The Steve Blanco Trio makes Contact for "a great musical phenomenon," jazz reviewer Ester Eggert says. "Listening to their debut CD Contact takes you on a journey through so many different styles of music that it leaves you speechless."

Trans-Global Underground blends electronica and worldbeat for Impossible Broadcasting. "The music created by Trans-Global Underground ranges from ethereal to strange," Paul de Bruijn says. "While various elements come out stronger in some places then others, there is a cohesiveness to Impossible Underground that holds it fast together."

Joji Hirota & the Taiko Drummers make themselves heard on Japanese Taiko. "Turn up your speakers," exhorts John R. Lindermuth. "This music is meant to be loud."

Connie Willis grabs our reviewer's attention with Winds of Marble Arch & Other Stories. "I want more!" Katie Knapp enthuses. "There is a great variety of Willis' work represented here, so whether you're a die-hard fan or just starting, this book cannot possibly disappoint."

Elizabeth Bear mixes Whiskey & Water for a satisfying experience. "This book is complicated. It's not an undemanding, relaxing read," Ellen Rawson says. "There are a number of characters to keep track of, and scenes change quickly. However, it's also a book that I couldn't put down, with a world in which I found myself easily enthralled and enchanted, not necessarily by Faerie, but by Bear's poetic expression and knife-sharp narrative."

Amanda Grange takes on a literary classic -- Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice -- from a very different point of view in Mr. Darcy's Diary. "Grange skillfully weaves her story in and around the narrative as written by Austen, using, where appropriate, the original dialogue, so that the story always has the proper flavor," says Laurie Thayer. "Yet she also takes care to pace the story so that it moves quickly, managing to convey a sense of tension, even when the reader knows the story's happy ending ahead of time."

Keith Cymry carries his Hope in a Nutshell in this piece of modern, speculative fiction. "Much in the same vein of a trickster god, Cymry critiques modern society with a sort of impishness that keeps the story lively and fun no matter what is happening," Dan Jolley says. "This is clear from the very start as he dives into a philosophical, allegorical discussion of the walnut, which actually manages to set the tone for the story to follow. It's all about finding and cultivating hope in even the worst of situations -- and the importance of always questioning authority and refusing to conform for conformity's sake."

Sol Luckman doesn't get off on the right foot for Beginner's Luke. "Luckman and his publicist (who may be a stronger writer than Luckman, himself) are quick to call this work (and the series to which it belongs) nonserious fiction." Kevin Shlosberg says. "I am not quite sure what that means, for Beginner's Luke isn't overtly comedic nor is it overly satirical. Whereas it is full of dissatisfaction and social criticism, for a work of fiction it comes across as dull, flat and quite sophomoric."

Tom Knapp isn't ready for Y: The Last Man to come to an end, "yet volume nine of the series, Motherland, makes it pretty clear that conclusions are just around the corner," he frets. "Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's excellent Vertigo series has set Yorick, the last man, on a global mission of science and personal salvation. ... Portions of this book will keep you on the edge of your seat, while others will knock you back on your butt. And all of these threads seem to be converging, although it's still anyone's guess how things will turn out in the end."

Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser is resurrected by Dark Horse, and Robert Tilendis is happy to see it back. "The adaptation and scripts by Howard Chaykin are excellent, keeping the feel of the original Leiber stories and producing a smooth continuity that carries through the several stories," Robert says. "Mike Mignola's drawings are perfect: they have the rough-edged elegance of Leiber's stories and, while there are no bells and whistles as far as layout goes, there is a good, clear narrative flow that I think is necessary for stories as complex as these tend to be. The whole thing is a treat, whether you're a fan of graphic novels or a fan of sword-and-sorcery fantasy."

The future is bleak for Spider-Man in Reign, Mark Allen says. "Heavily influenced by Frank Miller's futuristic Batman story from the '80s, this tale puts an aged Peter Parker back into costume to face an old villain who's pulling all the strings from behind the scenes," he says. "The art, the tone, the entire 'feel' is Dark Knight via comics fans' favorite wall-crawler."

The Essential Painkiller Jane puts you where you need to be to understand this strange, heavily bandaged heroine who's making a comeback both in comics and on TV. "I like Jane, who seems to lack the heroic motivation of most comic-book stars; she fights because she's not sure what else to do with her abilities," Tom Knapp says. "She's a little too morose for my taste, but I have to imagine constant waves of crippling pain have something to do with her mood."

John Constantine has faced "some of the ugliest things ever to spring from Heaven or Hell. But for true ugly, read Highwater for a peek into racism and hate," Tom says. "Constantine's journey across America takes him into the heart of the neo-Nazi movement. Constantine -- like the reader -- is horrified by the calm and dispassionately logical presentation of the party platform, and he tackles the matter in a brutal, suitably ironic way."

The missing chapter between the end of Star Wars and the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back is revealed in Vader's Quest, a graphic tale explaining how Darth Vader first learned that the man who blew up the Death Star was his own son. "Vader's Quest is a good chapter in the saga, and it fits neatly in the space it needed to fill," Tom says. "Star Wars fans shouldn't miss it."

TV comes under the spotlight in Investigating CSI: Inside the Crime Labs of Las Vegas, Miami & New York. "Essays range from the humorous to the serious to the really rather gross, as writers examine the scientific authenticity of the various storylines, the effect of the shows on the expectations of the general populace and the franchise as popular entertainment," Laurie Thayer says. "For CSI fans, Investigating CSI offers an entertaining examination of the depths of television's most popular franchise."

For Daniel Jolley, this film is Sublime. "Sublime is a red-hot tamale hidden within the predominantly bland cheese pizza of the horror industry," he says. "Some like it, some hate it, but no one forgets the unexpected taste of it."

Miles O'Dometer heads to Mexico City for the Matador, directed by Richard Shepard. "Matador is an unusual film in this day and age in that it starts out looking into the lives of three troubled people and stays there," he says. "Shepard's film is not just about interesting characters, but about how interesting characters interact, first as a duo, then as a trio."

More's on the way! (Meanwhile, take a peek at the archives of past editions, below.)

2 June 2007

Nature does not complete things. She is chaotic.
Man must finish, and he does so by making a garden and building a wall.
- Robert Frost

On May 30, eight years ago, Rambles.NET came into the world, kicking and bawling. On May 30, 32 years ago, my wife did the same. Huzzah for the both of them! Long may they thrive!!

Brace Yourself Bridget goes high-energy on this self-titled debut. "The name of this group prepares you for the wonderful onslaught of sound that will burst from your speakers when you fire up this CD," says Nicky Rossiter. "Think of the Pogues, but with better diction and no loss of energy."

Nuala Kennedy is happy to show off The New Shoes to her friends -- and anyone who enjoys the Irish flute should take notice. "It doesn't take long to listen and realize that Nuala doesn't have the potential to be one of the great masters of Irish flute playing -- she already is. Her music is graceful, sweetly nuanced and intricately arranged. It sounds organic and at ease, not at all glossy or overproduced," Tom Knapp says. "That she's also blessed with a beautiful, delicate voice is almost unfair. Nuala sings on several tracks, in both English and Gaelic, and it's a delight every time."

Bonnie Rideout shares a six-year span of music on A Scottish Fiddle Collection. "A Scottish Fiddle Collection is a great place to start for those who are unfamiliar with Rideout's work, displaying a good cross-section of the different playing styles between which she moves with both ease and grace," Mike Wilson says. "This is traditional music, played exceptionally well, and with undeniable passion."

Donnie Munro, Nicky Rossiter says, "will be a familiar name to the folk aficionados among you. He was the voice of Runrig for many years, up to 1997. Since then he has immersed himself in developing his native Gaelic language and culture and based himself on the Isle of Skye. ... To the joy of his thousands of fans he has also been working on new material, and this album, Heart of America, is the result."

Xavier Rudd's Food in the Belly and Storyhill's self-titled CD both earn comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel. "This is peach-fuzz-mustache music, as S&G's was, for the earnest and youthful, awash in deep and melancholy thoughts. In other words, the anchor, such as it is, rests at the bottom of a fairly shallow stream," Jerome Clark says of Storyhill. As for Rudd, he adds, "If your tastes run to what pass for high-brow lyrics set inside respectable pop-rock songs, you will like Food in the Belly, and even if you don't, I doubt you will find anything to put you in a sour humor."

Jeremiah McLane welcomes listeners to Freetown. "This award-winning teacher, performer and composer puts his talents to work on this collection of tunes that vary in tempo and styles from slow, thought-provoking works of art to lively dance tunes and jazz pieces," Sherrill Fulghum says. "Accordion enthusiasts will find that Freetown is a must-have for their collection."

Sara Hickman juggles moods on Motherlode, Wil Owen says. "Sara is a very talented singer. She has a fantastic voice."

Eric Balkey shares his personal philosophies through My Sacred Heart. "Though not necessarily a religious one, My Sacred Heart is a deeply spiritual album, with a central theme of service and attention to others," Michael Scott Cain reveals. "The sparse arrangements suit Balkey's soft and gentle voice well."

Eric Bibb is an atypical bluesman, Jerome Clark argues, after spinning Diamond Days, Bibb's latest release from Telarc Blues. "The son of the 1960s folk-revival figure Leon Bibb, he is a singer-songwriter rooted in various strains of vernacular music," Jerome says. "He would not have been out of place in the Greenwich Village of the mid-1960s, when 'folk music' was being redefined as something larger than strictly traditional songs, specifically as a vehicle for personal expression set in broadly folk-like arrangements."

Country singer Diana Jones "has been called the new Emily Dickinson, and after listening to this great collection of excellent songs, I can well believe it," Nicky Rossiter says. "This is intelligent lyric-writing allied to a mature and oh-so-sweet delivery. It is the sort of CD you will play over and over again just for her voice, but as you listen you will enjoy the beautiful writing more on each exposure." Check out Nicky's review of My Remembrance of You for more!

Rusty Evans & Ring of Fire ignite a Burning Man and rise above their similarities to Johnny Cash, Dave Howell assures us. "This mixture of country, rockabilly, folk and rock moves at medium speed, but it is burning with imagination."

Greg Smith is playing Above the Clouds on this recording. "Smith plays a variety of musical styles including jazz, blues and world music on his debut CD," says Sherrill Fulghum. "The album contains 14 original tracks that are a culmination of Smith's life and 40-plus years as a musician."

Hidekazu Katoh and Richard Stagg prove themselves to be Masters of the Shakuhachi on this excellent album featuring the Japanese bamboo flute. "A notoriously difficult instrument to play, the shakuhachi in skillful hands will yield emotionally rich and sonorous notes," Kevin Shlosberg says. "Though Masters of the Shakuhachi shares some masterful playing of a difficult and intimidating instrument, it's five 10-minute-plus tracks are not for the impatient and casual listener. Listen closely and you shall be moved with these eloquent sounds."

King Sunny Ade's Nigerian sound is rereleased on Synchro Series. "Ade plays 'juju music,' which is the music of the Nigerian lower classes, as opposed to 'highlife' played in upscale hotels and nightclubs," Dave Howell explains. "The word 'juju' comes from the sound of the talking drum. It uses polyrhythms and the call and response vocals of traditional African music, mixing in electric guitars and keyboards."

Stephen King tells Lisey's Story and sweeps reviewer Gloria Oliver along for the ride. "King gives his usual evil hints that keep you going as you get flashes of what will be coming," she says. "He feeds the reader just enough to whet the appetite."

Kat Richardson unleashes a new kind of paranormal heroine in Greywalker. "Harper needs to quit whining and start reasserting the tough, action-oriented persona that impressed me in the very first scene, when she took a beating but kept on kicking to the bloody, bitter end," Tom Knapp says. "And the author has to flesh out her characters more and polish her dialogue so it sounds less scripted, more natural. It was hard to sustain interest enough to finish this book, I'll admit, but the possibilities are intriguing enough to make me want to see Harper Blaine in action one more time."

Patrick C. Crowell overstays his welcome in a Hostile Environment, Nicky Rossiter reports. "At 396 pages, Hostile Environment is a good legal/thriller novel," he says. "At around 300 pages, it might have been great."

George R.R. Martin has crafted "a stunning masterpiece" with A Storm of Swords, book three in the Song of Ice & Fire series. "The writing and editing are flawless," Chris McCallister enthuses. "This series is not for impatient readers. For moderately patient readers, wait for the series to be finished in five years or so, and then set aside a major piece of reading time and do the whole series. For die-hard fans, grab them when they're released and gobble them up. Whatever your approach, you won't be disappointed."

Carolyn Parkhurst's main characters are Lost & Found in the world of reality TV. "Parkhurst's novel is a story of interconnected lives and skeletons buried deep; the drama and comedy just happen to be set behind the scenes of a reality television show," says Jessica Lux-Baumann. "I'm glad I took the chance. This is a worthwhile read."

Adrienne Maria Vrettos tackles some of the tough questions facing all too many teenagers today in Skin. "Skin is an unflinchingly honest look at family dynamics and formative friendships," says Jessica. "Skin is a story of survival. How much can one teen absorb before he stands up to shake up the world?"

John Constantine is trapped at the inn when the world Freezes Over. "This story, written by Brian Azzarello, with art Marcelo Frusin, is a perfect example of the kind of storytelling that makes Hellblazer so very entertaining," Tom Knapp says. "Bollocks to the world's greatest mage; in this yarn, Constantine gets by with a clever mind, a quick tongue and sheer presence. Well done, Brian!"

The Empire is off to a shaky start in Betrayal, the first volume of the Star Wars: Empire line. "Betrayal is supposed to occur just a few weeks before A New Hope begins. And yet Vader is still insecure in his power, fearful of leaving the Emperor's side, hardly the figure to inspire fear throughout the galaxy," Tom says. "Vader better pull himself together and inspire a little fear soon, or the Rebels are going to laugh him right off the Death Star."

Superman faces a post-nuclear world in Distant Fires, an Elseworlds tale that strips heroes of their powers. "Distant Fires falls short of being a great Elseworlds tale because it feels rushed," Tom says. "Not only because 64 pages is insufficient to tell the story, but also because the writers failed to think things through."

The Black Coat leads the Knights of Liberty, opposing the tyranny of the British in colonial New York City, in A Call to Arms. "Writers Lichius and Cogan spin a web of intrigue, adventure and downright macabre creepiness as they lay out the Knights' struggle against an organization called the League," says Mark Allen. "All in all, The Black Coat delivers the goods, and is one of those hard-to-find worthwhile alternatives to the glut of superhero books out there."

The works of Jack London are highlighted in the fifth volume of Graphic Classics. "These stories are well adapted, but their impact is sometimes weakened by non-climatic endings (London's fault, not his modern interpretors') and very cartoonish (i.e. minimalistic) art that dilutes the illusion of reality," says Michael Vance. "This volume is really recommended only for true Jack London fans."

Jean Davison revisits an earlier theme of study with The Ostrich Wakes: Struggles for Change in Highland Kenya. "The Ostrich Wakes, as Davison herself would admit, does not quite fit the situation in modern Kenya," Dave Howell says. "The people there have not fully pulled their heads up to face the problem of AIDS, which has become a huge issue for the entire African continent. Much of the book deals with Davison's attempts to get people to talk about it."

Tom Knapp took the family to see Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, and while his wife dozed in her seat, he and the kids had a rollicking good time. "Some elements of the plot simply don't make sense. And if you're not already familiar with the first two movies in the series, be sure to watch them before seeing this one or risk being lost at sea," he says. "Ultimately, the plot really doesn't matter because no one really cares -- as long as Depp, Bloom and Knightley fill the screen and there's plenty of CGI swashbuckling to fill the senses."

More's on the way! (Meanwhile, take a peek at the archives of past editions, below.)

26 May 2007

Keep close to Nature's heart ... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
- John Muir

It might seem strange, in a time in which we are preoccupied with a fumbled war, a bumbling president and countless murders and other acts of violence -- but I'm really angry at the fate of the Cutty Sark.

I've always had a deep fondness for wooden sailing ships, and Cutty Sark was a beautiful example of the ancient maritime traditions. I have good memories of a trip my father and I took to London in 1991, and we walked the long, damp and claustrophobic pedestrian tunnel under the Thames to see Cutty Sark at its moorings in Greenwich. I can't recall if we arrived too late in the day or if it was closed for repairs, but we didn't get onboard the ship -- but even seeing her there in all her glory was enough. She was the last of her kind. (Later, I also recall with more amusement my father's fruitless efforts to finish a scale model of the ship. The Cutty Sark's extensive rigging did him in, and I believe the model sat for years in our basement before he finally admitted defeat and officially gave up.)

According to Wikipedia, Cutty Sark was built in 1869 in Dumbarton, Scotland, and she was named for "an erotic dancing witch" (Wikipedia's words, not mine) in Robert Burns' 1791 poem "Tam o' Shanter." She was one of the last gasps of the clipper ship era, losing out to the slower but more reliable steamships that followed. Her career, primarily in the China tea and Australian wool trades, was distinguished if not exceptional. She held several names over the years before being purchased, restored and renamed in 1922 and used as a training ship until 1954, when she was drydocked at Greenwich.

Fire broke out on May 21, and early reports indicated suspicion of arson. At the time of the blaze, she was in the midst of a massive, three-year renovation project costing an estimated $50 million.

"The tragedy is you can't remake the fabric of the boat -- these are timbers that were growing during the Battle of Agincourt," Richard Doughty, project director and chief executive of the Cutty Sark Trust, told BBC News. "History itself has been lost." (Agincourt, by the way, was fought in 1415. That's the battle immortalized in Shakespeare's Henry V. If you haven't seen the Kenneth Branagh film version of the play, rent it.)

Fortunately for the treasured clipper, the damage was contained by the fast response of London firefighters. And, while millions more in funding will be necessary to restore it, officials have said it can be repaired. According to reports from the Associated Press, the bow and stern were largely intact after the fire was quelled. Most of the valuable teak wood had been removed before the fire to give restoration workers access to the ship's iron frame -- and the iron held its shape despite the high temperatures of the fire. In the lower decks, the timbers that had not been removed were charred but suffered mostly superficial damage. The masts and most of its wood planks were safely in storage.

As I'm writing this, authorities are still unsure what started the fire. If it was arson, shame on the person (or people) who would do such a thing!!

Oh, wait ... yes, we have reviews below, too.

Wendy Weatherby draws on Scottish literature to inspire Sunset Song. "I can only attest to the music itself, and I can say it is fabulous," says Michael Scott Cain. "Weatherby has drawn on Celtic themes and traditional Scottish folk music and instruments: pipes, fiddles, button boxes, bouzoukis and whistles abound. But when appropriate, she has gone full out into chamber music, assembling some of Scotland's finest musicians to pull off some dazzling and thoughtful pieces that blend classical techniques with folk themes."

Roisin Elsafty makes her first solo outing with Ma bhionn Tu Liom Bi Liom. "For this she presents a wonderful mixture of old and new material primarily in Irish," Nicky Rossiter says. "She is equally at home singing without accompaniment or with the backing of greats like Donal Lunny or Mairtin O'Connor, with whom she has played numerous live venues."

Jorma Kaukonen, of Jefferson Airplane fame, gets back to his love of folk music with Stars in My Crown. "A thorough-going professional, Kaukonen knows a solid number when he hears (or composes) one, and all 14 cuts afford satisfaction, each in its own way," Jerome Clark says. "I am particularly taken with the supremely tuneful instrumentals, where Kaukonen gets to demonstrate his first-rate picking skills, playing for the melody and the emotion and not for the showy performance."

Bazza converts the Joe Lansdale story Freezer Burn into the CD Freezer. "Free of the need for actors or aesthetics, Bazza covers the entire sprawling landscape of Lansdale's text, which roams over the varied landscape of Texas, through a carnival, and up and off whirlybirds and bridges," says Sarah Meador. "Their rootsy folk carries guilt, ecstasy and panic, sometimes in the same song, and reveals the sympathy in the blackest of the dark characters."

Po' Girl is coming Home to You with a new recording of Canadian folk music. "I wish I had six more months to review this CD, and not just because I hate deadlines. I've learned this about Po' Girl: it takes me some time to go from hesitant about their new tunes through to mainlining them," says Katie Knapp. "I'm about a month in, and I've already started grooving."

John Sebastian, through no fault of his own, missed his shot in 1968, but he has another one now with the re-release of John B. Sebastian. "It's good to have it back now because John B. Sebastian is a very good CD, displaying the range of Sebastian's talent," says Michael Cain. "Considering that it's a 30-year-old journey that led directly to middle age, we have to consider if the music is still timely, if it still holds up. Most of the CD does; it reveals, of course, its '60s origins but still rewards listening."

Anne Heaton files her songs away in a Black Notebook to share. "On my first listen to this disc, I was immediately taken by her voice -- it's beautiful and can sound playful, full of yearning, soothing, even sexy," says Erika S. Rabideau. "The feeling her voice portrayed always matched whatever I perceived the song to be about."

Chip Taylor's new indie label, Train Wreck, posts two successes with its first pair of domestic releases: Kendel Carson's Rearview Mirror Tears and John Platania's Blues, Waltzes & Badland Borders. "If these two CDs are any indication, lovers of contemporary roots music have something to look forward to," Jerome Clark says. "Unsurprisingly, Taylor's fingerprints are all over both projects. One has the impression that ideas burst inside his head like explosions in a minefield, and he is forced to seek relief by sharing them with other artists, even if he has to start a label and sign them to do it."

Tres Chicas give voice to their muses on Bloom, Red & the Ordinary Girl. "With a tighter focus, this could have been an enjoyable collection," Mike Wilson says. "The soft country-rock style and well-worked harmonies is where the strength of Tres Chicas lies, and they would have been well served by exploring this further. Ultimately, Bloom, Red & the Ordinary Girl disappoints with weak arrangements, some careless vocals and a lack of focus."

Cashman lets loose with a little Texassippi Stomp. "Not for the faint of heart is Cashman, purveyor of full-frontal downhome blues, as subtle as a tornado funnel or an artillery blast," Jerome Clark says. "I suppose 2007 may produce a handful of blues albums as good as this one -- I hope so, because if that's the case this will be a memorable year indeed -- but when the roll is called and 2007 marches off into lost time, Cashman can boast that it delivered it, in Mississippi Fred McDowell's phrase, straight 'n' natural."

Ellynne Plotnick offers up some laidback jazz on I Walk Alone. "From the initial 'Small Day Tomorrow' right through to 'While We're Young,' it oozes sensual singing that conjures images of soft lights, piano, a glass of malt and a lovely lady in an evening dress effortlessly pouring out emotion through lyrics," Nicky Rossiter says.

Craig Buhler has put together some quality jazz for the Capistrano Sessions. "The format may be standard, but the playing is not; these guys are good, solid pros who know their way around their instruments," says Michael Scott Cain. "Capistrano Sessions is the real thing."

Badi Assad shares her Brazilian sound on Verde. "I'm not sure what grabbed me first: Badi's vocals or her guitar playing. Her vocal range is very pleasant and relaxing," Wil Owen says. "I will warn you that she sometimes makes noises that on first listen sound weird, but they really do fit with the CD. Her guitar playing is superb. I might have to see if any of her other albums are instrumental."

Benny More's Cuban sound resonates four decades later with this re-release of Ritmo. "Certainly the sound quality isn't the same as we're used to today, but this makes the music even more authentic," says Adolf Goriup. "When you're listening to this CD you can feel the tropical heat and you can smell the scent of the Caribbean air. You feel like dancing and you'd like to order one of those colourful and tasty cocktails while you move to those beautiful rhythms -- rumba, cha-cha-cha and salsa, Benny More sings them all accompanied by the typical sound of a big band."

The soundtrack to Scoop "will be of interest to those who have not seen and may never see Scoop, the movie," Nicky Rossiter says. "This is a top-rate stand-alone album of classical and dance favourites that will enchant, entrance and entertain for hours."

Edward Rutherfurd conjures the past with The Rebels of Ireland. "The major thrust of the novel deals with the subjugation of the Irish people and, in particular, the Catholics by England," John Lindermuth says. "Rebels is not a quick read but it is an engrossing one that may set the reader off in search of more information on various depicted events."

Richelle Mead uncovers the supernatural side of Seattle in Succubus Blues. "Honestly, when Succubus Blues arrived on my review stack, I was worried. It looked good, but it also raised a few warning flags; this could, I thought, be another lascivious sex romp disguised as urban fantasy/horror, proving little more than an excuse to have demons and other supernatural creatures get naked and sweaty with lustful mortals," Tom Knapp says. "Don't let the title scare you away. Succubus Blues sits comfortably on the shelf with the likes of urban fantasy writers Charlaine Harris, Christopher Moore, Kim Harrison and Patricia Briggs."

Will Clarke's sophomore novel, The Worthy: A Ghost's Story, falls short of expectations. "Clarke's debut novel (Lord Vishnu's Love Handles) succeeds as a zany otherworldly romp, but his follow-up is mediocre at best," says Jessica Lux-Baumann. "Clarke has innovative ideas about the spiritual world, and the book bills itself as a religious experience, but the execution is half-hearted and employs a stale deus ex machina ending."

Barbara Hambly tackles the story of Mary Todd Lincoln in The Emancipator's Wife. "The thing I like to say most about this book is -- WOW. It is a totally eye-opening experience," says Gloria Oliver. "While a work of fiction, it does have a lot of historical research involved and it is presented in a wonderfully entertaining manner."

Tom Knapp had high hopes for Star Trek: The Manga, but said the new interpretation of Kirk & Co. is lackluster. "Star Trek: The Manga is not a success -- but maybe, like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it can learn from its failings and launch a successful series in its wake."

Tom hates to see good stories crammed into too few pages. "Silke is a stylish science-fiction adventure with a gorgeous heroine, an intriguing plot and plenty of action to keep readers involved," he says. "Unfortunately, the storyline suffers from a rushed feeling, as if author/artist Tony Daniel was forced to squeeze a 300-page story into a meager 96 pages, and the plot starts to pile up toward the end in a mess of confused directions."

John Constantine has ended his American travels and is back home in England with a new mystery -- and a new writer, to boot. "Red Sepulchre brings the writing of Mike Carey (best known for his work on the Lucifer series) to Hellblazer, and it's a match made in Heaven," Tom says. "He's got a good feel for the kind of buggered-up trickery Constantine is known for, and his text blends well with the grimly dark artwork by Marcelo Frusin."

The second book of Vampi, Tainted Love, did not improve on the first, Tom says. "The art ain't bad, really, but one might wish more energy had been spent on the creative use of Vampirella rather than a fruitless attempt to market a lesser version of the character in her stead. Vampi proved to have a short shelf-life, and it was, unfortunately, a fate she deserved."

Tom says New Mutants, the eighth volume in the Ultimate X-Men series, shows continuing changes in the story's direction. "Brian Michael Bendis, who made Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man series one of the best on the market, handles the writing for this sensitive volume in which several new characters are introduced to the X-family and one, at least, takes his leave," Tom says.

The life of an artist is under the spotlight in Hero Gets Girl: The Life & Art of Kurt Schaffenberger. "Hero Meets Girl was written with the open, conversational enthusiasm and admiration of fan and friend Mark Voger," says Michael Vance. "This biography is highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of comics."

Michael Connelly reveals the details of his time on the Crime Beat with this autobiographical audiobook. "Connelly details that phase of his life in Crime Beat, which is a remarkable glimpse at the on-the-job training he would use to give him insight into police and the criminals they pursue," John Lindermuth says. "That said, this could have been a riveting book. Instead, it's a bit of a disappointment."

More's on the way! (Meanwhile, take a peek at the archives of past editions, below.)

19 May 2007

Nature never wears a mean appearance.
Neither does the wisest man extort her secret,
and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

It's been a weird week, all in all. One short, sweet thunderstorm, toeing the Republican line, "just one more piece of cake, really" -- but no pineapple on the pizza, damn it -- and news of a year-old murder down in Florida. Hang it all, let's read some reviews.

The Wild Colonial Bhoys make their place among the Irish in America with this new release. "In the Pogues' wake a movement that eventually adopted the somewhat misleading name 'Celtic rock' has arisen," Jerome Clark says. "When the songs -- none traditional, but all nodding to traditional models -- start to rock, one is likely to think of what Fairport Convention might have sounded like if this very English band were Irish. I have nothing against the Pogues -- in fact, I rather like them -- but I am not convinced the world needs dozens of bands whose purpose is to replicate them."

Bodega presents "life, energy and a true love of music to the world" on this self-titled release. "Traditional music is clearly continuing to be the new rock music, with so many big names returning to their roots and realizing they cannot do better than mining the motherlode," says Nicky Rossiter. "Here we have a band on the upward curve taking that music and energizing it through great playing and a palpable love of their material."

David Leinweber makes his mark on Old World Folk. "It's hard to pinpoint just what makes Leinweber's delivery unique. He makes no radical innovations in the style or presentation of the music. His voice, though clear, is ordinary," Sarah Meador says. "But there's nothing ordinary about his performance, which combines the energy of a live rock concert with the cozy jokiness of a favorite uncle. When Leinweber sings, he climbs out of the speakers to wink and compliment the cooking."

Stonecircle stretches into a Winter Sky with a rich, Celtic sound. "Listening to Stonecircle is like stepping back in time, a beautiful, haunted time in which you experience the whole fabric of Celtic musical tradition," John Lindermuth says. "The Utah-based band ... fuses traditional Celtic music with folk, jazz and even classical elements to provide a sound decidedly its own."

David Leask walks the Tightrope of Dreams for his music. "Leask has never forgotten his Scottish roots, even though he's living in Canada today," Adolf Goriup says. "His third album ... reflects both influences and is an interesting mixture of self-crafted songs with a few of Leask's favourite Scottish ballads."

Chris Rosser's music is Hidden Everywhere. "Writers are told to write what they know; musicians are told to write what they feel," Sherrill Fulghum says. "Multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and producer Chris Rosser takes both of these pieces of advice to heart on his latest album."

Austin & Elliot make themselves heard with 13 Songs Plus. "There are no lush strings or complicated arrangements on offer here. These are songwriters with a love of words expressing emotions -- personal or otherwise -- to the pure accompaniment of guitar," Nicky Rossiter says. "This is fine collection of original material well written and thoughtfully performed."

The Country Boys and Cedar Hill both take a swing at bluegrass with Sing Bluegrass & Gospel and Portrait of a Song, respectively. "The Hay Holler label, headquartered in Blacksburg, Va., is one of a small number of independent imprints dedicated to keeping traditional bluegrass available to those of us who don't or can't plan our summers around the festival circuit," Jerome Clark says. "Many of the bands on these labels are not household names, but they preserve bluegrass' homey virtues and attract passionate followings among those who've had a chance to hear them. Two fairly recent releases document the many pleasures to be had in this still-vital genre."

Kevin Collins shares "an eclectic collection of music" on The Photograph, Nicky Rossiter says. "His selections on this album will appeal to a wide audience. It has something for everybody."

John Lawless is spending his coin at the Five & Dime. "I very nearly missed out on reviewing this album because of the wonderful bonus features. If you put it on your computer to listen, you will go immediately to these features of banjo tabs, pictures, catalogues, etc., and might have difficulty finding the music," Nicky says. "But never fear, put it where it belongs on that CD player and you will enter a wonderful world of music and song."

HighTone gets its props with HighTone Records Anthology: Rockin' from the Roots, Jerome Clark says. "Twenty-nine songs and one instrumental (surf-guitar king Dick Dale's thundering 'Ghost Riders in the Sky') count here for an embarrassment of riches. First-class artists, superior material, sharp-edged production -- well, you'd have to work at it to get the results wrong. This anthology, which doesn't work at it, just lets it happen, and that's more than enough."

Ronnie Baker Brooks receives The Torch from his father's hand and carries on the tradition of Chicago blues. "Ronnie is the most exciting guitar player I've heard since Stevie Ray Vaughn," says Michael Cain. "The man is brilliant. Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar with lighter fluid. Brooks does it with his picking and fretting; nothing artificial needed. Just skill and talent. And, of course, a touch of magic."

Faun evokes a dream of ancient worlds with Renaissance. "This German band relies on a broad mix of old and new instruments and presents itself like a force of nature expressed in harmony," Tom Knapp says. "Imagine Dead Can Dance with more of a eurocentric focus, and you've got a pretty good idea what Faun can do -- not that the band is confined to one continent with its sound. The music on Renaissance is innovative and passionate, a refined outlook slashed with a feral attitude. It is both soothing and stirring. It is beautiful music."

Kiran Ahluwalia's self-titled album is "her first international release, and I'm torn," Sarah Meador says. "On the one hand, this is a rare treat of an album, a rich infusion of traditional Indian ghazal poetry with modern influences and other traditions. On the other hand, I'm ready to blame everything from the International Monetary Fund to the next red light for the previous absence of this album in my life."

Michel Sajrawy opens up a can of Middle Eastern jazz/rock on Yathrib. "Interesting? Yes. Borderline schizophrenic? That, too," says Jennifer Mo. "Fans of world fusion will find much of interest on Yathrib, though it is too experimental to be easily accessible."

Royce Campbell gets jazzy, not ethnic, with his Gypsy Soul. "The simplicity of instrumentation on the album -- only a bass and drum play with Campbell -- allows Campbell's expertise on the guitar to shine through," Sherrill Fulghum says. "Gypsy Soul allows the listener to either just sit back and relax -- to chill out -- or for the guitar enthusiast to follow along and listen in to Campbell's style of playing."

Chuck Negron touts Chuck Negron in Three Dog Nightmare: The Chuck Negron Story. "Chuck Negron was one of the most important members of the biggest rock supergroup of the 1970s -- or so he'd like you to believe. In his addiction memoir, Negron spends time in every chapter justifying the importance of his contributions to Three Dog Night, producing evidence that they were the biggest-selling group of the decade and claiming they invented stadium rock and other modern aspects of the genre," says Jessica Lux-Baumann. "The mere fact that he devotes so much effort to proving his rock superstardom casts doubts on the veracity of his claims."

Patricia Briggs is Blood Bound to continue the paranormal Mercy Thompson series further. "Blood Bound is a compelling story with a strong, capable heroine who defies expectations in an increasingly crowded genre," Tom Knapp says. "Characters, action and suspense work together smoothly to drive the plot in interesting directions, and readers will hug the pages as Briggs takes unexpected turns."

Mayra Calvani's protagonist is Embraced by the Shadows in this unusually sunny vampire novel. "The book's setting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is one of the most innovative and entrancing things about it," says Gloria Oliver. "Imagine -- vampires on a sunny, tropical island! Although I would have preferred more description of the unusual location, there's still enough to give the reader a feel of a different sort of place for these dark encounters."

Lisa Unger tells Beautiful Lies in a mystery novel that kept our reviewer guessing. "This is a complex, convoluted mystery, with credible, three-dimensional characters and amazing, but still credible, twists and turns," Chris McCallister says. "Blind alleys suddenly develop doorways, and newfound promising doors lead nowhere. On several occasions, I thought that I had figured out at least part of the puzzle, but I was right only about one-quarter of the time."

Laura McClendon shares Too Many Secrets in this murder-mystery. "It is quite heavy on character development, which might make it too detailed and a bit slow for some readers, but there was enough action, mystery and surprises for me, and I enjoyed most of the character development," Chris says.

Peter Rennebohm is up French Creek without a paddle. "Sometimes the simplest step can put a person in big trouble," John Lindermuth says. "Peter Rennebohm uses that premise to build a novel that stokes up tension at a consistent rate and won't let you put French Creek down until the last page."

The popular Powers series by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming switches from Image to Icon (a Marvel Comics imprint) with the publication of volume six, Sellouts. "Powers rocks its world with this one, and nothing will be the same in its wake," Tom Knapp says. "I have to wonder if Bendis and Oeming will be able to top themselves this time."

Tom says #6 in the Ultimate Fantastic Four line is Frightful. "If you don't buy this one for Carmen Miranda, buy it for the zombies," he says, obliquely. "You'll like it."

Tom visits Nowheresville with Vampirella. "Her ongoing story was rebooted by writer Mark Millar and artist Mike Mayhew in a story arc collected in 2002," Tom says. "And, let's be honest here, some people will want to read it solely for the outfit Vampirella wears and the skin she reveals. (Her scarlet costume uses less cloth than your average bikini, just to be clear.) But the story deserves more attention than that."

Darth Vader is playing with children's toys in The Warrior Princess, volume four of Star Wars: X-Wing Rogue Squadron. "The story is fairly dull and uninspired," Tom says. "With the exception of the occasional twist, the plot is predictable, and you never feel for a moment like any of Our Heroes are in any real danger. The art is as wan and lifeless as the writing."

Let's get anthropomorphic with Walk Kelly and Pogo Revisited. "This collection is Kelly at the long-sustained height of his creative genius as an artist and writer," Michael Vance says. "Pogo and pals seem to dance verbally and visually across the page even as they pun and mangle the English language."

Robert Greenfield dips his toe into American counterculture with Timothy Leary: A Biography. Greenfield draws on Leary's own words, published works, police and court documents, and the accounts of his friends, family and peers to paint a vivid picture of this fascinating man," Jessica Lux-Baumann says. "This is a dense biography, filled with captivating anecdotes."

More's on the way! (Meanwhile, be sure to browse the archives of our past editions, below.)

12 May 2007

Those who find beauty in all of nature
will find themselves at one with the secrets of life itself.
- L.W. Gilbert

NorthCregg kicks it up at The Roseland Barndance. "From the moment you pick up the beautifully produced gatefold package with its design and cover picture, you are entering an experience that is more than music," Nicky Rossiter says. "This is a great album out of Ireland on a Scottish label for an international audience."

Lisa Knapp (no relation to the Rambles.NET editor that we know of) is Wild & Undaunted in her selection and performance of English folk traditions. "All but three of the 11 tracks are traditional songs, and the other three are originals either written completely by Knapp or contain her co-writing credit," Ellen Rawson says. "She sings and performs as a multi-instrumentalist (fiddle, guitar, hammered dulcimer, banjo, autoharp and percussion), making her an up-and-coming performer to watch, admire and respect."

Swingin' Fiddles spotlight the music of the Shetlands on Wir Waanderins. "Wir Waanderins would be a good CD at any age, but I'm more impressed after considering the youth of the musicians involved," Tom Knapp says. "They play their music with skill on an album that should inspire young fiddlers to keep at it and not let their rosin grow cold. In the future, however, I'd like to hear Swingin' Fiddlers break it up a bit more, with the fiddles going on in different directions and taking a few more risks with the melody."

Eve Goldberg finds A Kinder Season in her music. "It is her attempt to find joy in a time of great sorrow," Michael Scott Cain explains. "The attempt succeeds. Goldberg is a writer who sees and acknowledges the darkness but never gives in to it. The overall tone of the disc is optimistic and you'll come away from it feeling a little better."

Birch Book makes a gradual, yet lasting impression with Fortune & Folly. "When I first slipped the disc into my stereo, I initially thought it was pretty dull stuff. But my subconscious mind, sometimes wiser than me, dug its hooks into the sound, and some time later I noticed I'd hit the 'repeat' button at least once and was softly humming along with melodies I didn't realize I knew," Tom Knapp says. "B'ee's voice and guitar playing both draw from the folk-minstrel tradition, not so much melancholic as reflective and, just maybe, a little tired from the road. The music drifts softly, but never aimlessly, and it carries deceptive strength in its wandering harmonies."

Janine Davy loses our reviewer on Looking for You. "There isn't a single memorable tune or riff on this unforgettable collection of tunes," says Risa Duff. "I am not insinuating that Janine is not talented or that this is a bad CD; I am sure there will be a market for it somewhere. I am just disappointed that both Davy and her producer both played it safe the whole time and took absolutely no risks."

Ramsay Midwood expounds on Popular Delusions & the Madness of Cows. "Midwood recalls a downhome blues musician who is making it up as he goes along, improvising rhymes and not caring much about narrative coherence, quoting snatches of old songs when his imagination can't dredge up anything else," Jerome Clark says. "Speaking for myself -- I cannot, naturally, speak for you -- I take pleasure in Midwood's music. I can't imagine that anybody, even someone who isn't deeply drawn to his idiosyncratic approach, would find it truly off-putting. If you care enough to pay close attention, it eventually transforms into something generally recognizable."

Randy Kohrs' fourth recording, I'm Torn, is "a collection of 11 songs of good old-fashioned mountain bluegrass music," including some self-penned songs, Sherrill Fulghum says. "When Kohrs made the album he wanted to create something that would span the generations, appealing to teens while not upsetting the older generations who help keep the traditions alive."

Debbie Hennessey is Good as Gone with this country-rock recording. "Hennessey can sing the shingles off a barn," says Michael Scott Cain. "Put on Good as Gone and the first thing you notice is her voice, a strong, vibrant contralto that has as much surge and power as a Thunderbird. You'll be, for a few songs, entranced. Then, if you're me, you'll find yourself getting a little restless; your attention will begin to drift...."

Kim and Reggie Harris are ready to Get on Board! with the Underground Railroad. "Kim and Reggie Harris, a middle-aged African-American couple from Philadelphia, do a terrific job of reviving both familiar and unfamiliar material," Jerome Clark says. "Their singing is straightforward, yet powerful and affecting, and the subtext -- the continuing struggle for human rights and dignity -- is unmistakable, yet too deftly handled to lapse into thudding self-righteousness."

Incognito brings Adventures in Black Sunshine to its jazz sound. "By listening to the album Adventures in Black Sunshine, one can straightaway pick up some hints to the '70s and '80s -- it is this addictive disco groove that does not let you go," says Ester Eggert. "Their music unites club beats and jazz, which is of course by far not anything new but, considering the amount of time Incognito has followed the line of soul-funk-jazz, it is certainly something worth mentioning."

Clay Ross ups the ante on progressive jazz with The Random Puller, Sherrill Fulghum says. "Fans of the more traditional forms of jazz will find this music roams and wanders with no set forms and patterns; however, fans of the improv and progressive jazz forms will find it very much to their liking and will want to add The Random Puller to their music collections."

Roger Powell unearths the Fossil Poets to create "some of the freshest electronica of the 21st century," Kevin Shlosberg says. "It stands on some frontier as something akin to acid new-age fusion, though perhaps it suffices to say it's not easily pigeon-holed at all."

David Randall continues writing In the Shadow of the Bear with his second volume in the series, Chandlefort. "More consistently grim than Clovermead, Chandlefort finds its heroine constantly questioning whether her actions, and those of her powerful and often ruthless mother, are justifiable," says Jennifer Mo. "The lack of moral absolutes in David Randall's world, one of the most interesting aspects of the first book, is fully evident in this sequel in which even the antagonist is not entirely unsympathetic."

Kim Harrison continues the adventures of supernatural bounty hunter Rachel Morgan in Every Which Way But Dead. "Morgan's adventures in Every Which Way exceed the excitement of the previous two books combined," Tom Knapp says. "There are some great fights with witches and vampires, some high-stakes gambling, an exploding boat, a pissed-off pixie, a little family drama, a hint or two of high fashion, a turf war and some seriously witchy butt-kicking. The subplot with Rachel's demon master -- that's a long story, so just read about it in the book -- could have carried the novel on its own, particularly a pair of no-holds-barred brawls that practically tore through the pages of my paperback."

R.M. Meluch launches the Tour of the Merrimack with The Myriad. "Meluch has come up with a fast, smart adventure story with a couple of wrinkles, the most important of which is the plot twist near the end that puts a whole new dimension into the story," says Robert Tilendis. "The story is tight and absorbing, with a vivid cast and solid universe building."

Jose Carlos Somoza builds a science-fiction thriller out of string theory in Zig Zag. "Zig Zag, for the most part, moves quickly and generates an enormous amount of suspense," says Michael Scott Cain. "It also contains a wealth of material about string theory and contemporary science. Its extrapolations are based on workable science and will have you thinking and questioning not only the uses of science but the basis of everyday reality."

Rachel Caine opens The Morganville Vampires with Glass Houses. "This book is a blast!" Gloria Oliver enthuses. "Glass Houses is fast-paced and loads of fun!"

Paul Yee builds a Chinese-American folklore with Dead Man's Gold & Other Stories, a collection of stories set in the century following the California Gold Rush. "I found these stories rather bland," Wayne Morrison admits. "Despite the different settings and the difference in professions portrayed, there was a certain sameness among the stories. Perhaps these stories fit the idiom, but the collection didn't do it for me. For Chinese literature, I'd still go with Li Po, Cao Xueqin, Tu Fu or Barry Hughart."

Tom Knapp felt a little off-balance with the Rise of the Golden Eagle, volume 4 of the ongoing Hawkman series. "DC, after faithfully reprinting the proper sequence of stories in volumes 1-3, opted to skip more than a year's worth of the Hawkman series before collecting volume 4," Tom warns. "I suppose they thought the events of those issues weren't very important -- or perhaps they weren't very good -- but I confess, I felt a little lost."

It's time to hide in the bushes when Maniac Killer Strikes Again. "Richard Sala is quirky, possibly even demented, both as a writer and an artist," Tom says. "You certainly wouldn't want to be a character in Sala's stories, as even the protagonists often come to unfortunate ends, but ragged art and jagged prose may well sate your secret yen for insanity."

John Constantine is back with an infernal Son of Man. "This is excellent storytelling, which writer Garth Ennis has proven his skill at over and over again," Tom says. "But Son of Man has its problems, not the least of which is John Higgins' art. It's more cartoony than I expect in a Hellblazer book, and Constantine doesn't look like himself -- all square-jawed and buff, like Higgins was auditioning for a Marvel superhero book."

Tom is disappointed in Jabba the Hutt: The Art of the Deal, a stand-alone book from the Dark Horse Star Wars line. "The Hutt of the movies is disgustingly piggish, but also is ruthless, relentless and greedily cunning. He's the epitome of vile," Tom says. "The Hutt of the comics ... is oafish and dull, a cartoon caricature of himself."

Michael Vance is ready to talk about The Trouble With Girls. "It's visual pacing is energetic, never boring, its characters physically distinct and engaging, and the majority of readers may not even notice the rough patches," he says.

Edmund M. Kern presents the boy wizard as a stoic hero in The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What Our Favorite Hero Teaches Us about Moral Choices. "Kern's style is fluid and easily readable, and his explanation of the way the stoic philosophy has worked throughout history and in the Potter books is practically undeniable given his evidence," Gregg Winkler says. "Kern has done careful research, not only of his own points of view concerning the Potter books, but also in the points of view that are counter to his."

Andy Warhol shone his light inward for The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, newly rereleased for a modern audience. "The book is a candid insight into his thoughts on a wide-ranging number of topics -- from sex to food, New York to fame," Sean Walsh says. "The book is written in an aphoristic style, but a gossipy aphoristic style."

David Brin timed his release of King Kong is Back! to coincide with the most recent version of the cinematic spectacle. Now reviewer Jessica Lux-Baumann reports in, calling the volume "an academic and enjoyable collection of essays on topics ranging from personal experiences with the Kong films, the science and art of the Kong movies and the philosophy of King Kong."

Jen Kopf is In Good Company until the end. "For the first three-quarters of In Good Company, writer/director Paul Weitz is at the helm of an observant little movie about getting shaken out of your comfort zone, about deciding whether to hold to your convictions or give in," she says. "And then Hollywood -- or at least a Hollywood ending -- takes over."

More's on the way! (Meanwhile, be sure to browse the archives of our past editions, below.)

5 May 2007

This planet is not terra firma.
It is a delicate flower and it must be cared for.
It's lonely.
It's small.
It's isolated, and there is no resupply.
And we are mistreating it.
- Scott Carpenter

Longwood Gardens! The Chesapeake Bay! Ah!

Rory Campbell makes an Intrepid foray into music this year. "The pipes are rapidly becoming the instrument of choice with record producers, and in Rory Campbell we find a true maestro," Nicky Rossiter says. "This 14-track album gives us a broad picture of the artist as composer as well as expert instrumentalist, and we also get some vocal pieces."

Anne Roos celebrates Mermaids & Mariners with the quiet, old-world sounds of a Celtic harp, fiddle, guitar, viola and concertina ensemble. "Mermaids & Mariners does not arrest the attention so much as it beguiles it. Unpretentious, invitingly warm and thoroughly pleasant to listen to, this is a perfect CD to unwind to," says Jennifer Mo. "The packaging makes it ideal for gift giving, but you may well end up keeping it for your own collection."

Margaret McClure sheds her Tears for Jack. "Overall, Tears for Jack is a good album, a fine vehicle for the flexible talents of McClure as a writer and a performer," Sean Walsh says.

Michele Dominguez Greene celebrates her bicultural and bilingual background on Luna Roja. "It will appeal to lovers of more traditional-sounding Latin music," says Wil Owen.

Pete Alderton "plays the blues on an acoustic guitar and harmonica -- which is not unusual, certainly, but add in the fact he's from rural England and that throws a hammer into the machine," says Michael Scott Cain. Unfortunately, on Living on Love, "the arrangements have a predictability to them. After the first few bars, you've got it, and since there is no variation from it, you find yourself anticipating what comes next."

Nickel Creek sorts out the strongest tracks from three preceding albums on Reasons Why (The Very Best). "What this collection shows quite clearly is the development of the band's sound from charming bluegrass-influenced, mellow pop to a full-blown fresh and modern indie sound that still retains those wonderful bluegrass leanings -- and all this in the space of just three albums!" Mike Wilson says. "In addition, there are two tracks recorded live and a seven-track DVD of videos to their more popular songs."

The Dixie Bee-Liners "have fashioned a sound so distinctive that you couldn't possibly mistake them for anybody else, certainly not another standard-issue acoustic-roots outfit," on this self-titled CD, Jerome Clark says. "A lot of contemporary bluegrass is little more than empty hot licks, bland vocals and country-pop songwriting. The Bee-Liners, who are anything but the just-cited, give contemporary bluegrass not just a good name but a lesson in how modern and traditional sounds, lovingly wed, can infuse old musical styles with fresh life in a new century."

Steve Cole takes us out for a Spin with this guitar-jazz album from Narada. "This may not be the perfect CD for snuggling up with that special someone, but it is a great CD for listening to some good music -- one that will often find its way to the CD player," Sherrill Fulghum says.

Ramona Borthwick is turning over A New Leaf in jazz. "Steeped in music from childhood and drawing together influences from three continents, Ramona Borthwick brings us a distillation of the best in easy-on-the-ear jazz," Nicky Rossiter says. "This cross-fertilization of Asia, Europe and America makes for an eclectic mix in instrumental and vocal performances."

Mark Holdaway takes a global view on Two Thumbs Up: Adventures on the African Thumb Piano. "There's something about the kalimba, at least in Holdaway's hands, that creates the feel of a sacred moment without disturbing the everyday," Sarah Meador says. "It's a flexible meditation perfect for a family dinner or a nightmare commute. Two Thumbs Up is soothing on a bad day, uplifting on a good day, and just plain beautiful to hear."

Danny Elfman goes symphonic with Serenada Schizophrana. "Elfman is one of Hollywood's most talented score writers, with more than 100 movie soundtracks under his belt," Tom Knapp says. "Commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra, this symphonic piece gave the former Oingo Boingo frontman a new challenge -- working without the visual cues of a movie to inspire him. But, while the resulting tracks are entertaining on an aural level, they still sound like a soundtrack to me."

The soundtrack to Because of Winn-Dixie "works equally well whether you've seen the movie or not," William Kates says. "It's almost hard to believe with the multitude of people listed on the soundtrack production credits that any coherent collection could result, but such good taste was exercised in the song selection that Because of Winn-Dixie stands as one of the best movie soundtracks I've heard in a very long time."

Michael Moynihan explores the roots of a movement in Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground. "Moynihan has created an exhaustively-researched treatment of music, politics and crime, says Jessica Lux-Baumann. "The book avoids sensationalism at all costs and presents multiple points of view, especially in the dozens of interview subjects."

Sylvia Louise Engdahl takes her youthful protagonist on a Journey Between Worlds in this novel republished nearly four decades since it first saw print. "Engdahl's unusual SF novels are idea- and character-driven, and Journey Between Worlds is no exception," says Jennifer Mo. "There may not be much action, but Engdahl's well-realized vision of Mars is a compelling reason to read the book. ... Because technology is never emphasized, more than three decades after its original publication, Engdahl's many-domed Mars still seems relevant and plausible."

Jenna Solitaire concludes (for now?) her adventures in Keeper of the Earth, the fourth piece of her Daughter of Destiny series. "Unfortunately, this is not the shattering news I -- and Jenna -- could wish it were," says Laurie Thayer. "While Keeper of the Earth is an entertaining story for an hour or so, with moments of true pathos, it is ultimately nothing more than cotton candy, sweet while it lasts, but hardly filling."

Rachel Caine signs a Devil's Bargain to launch a new series of paranormal mysteries. "The story is fast-paced, the characters are likable and the mystery is fun," says Gloria Oliver. "Guns, lawyers and attitude! Who could ask for more in a paranormal mystery?"

Rick Buda invites you to buy a home in WolfPointe -- but don't expect a quiet, peaceful life there. "Throw the possibility of a recidivistic creature stalking the woods into the mix, and you have quite a tale of mystery, greed, corruption and murder going on here -- and author Rick Buda ties everything together quite satisfactorily in the end, making Wolfpointe a pretty solid, suspenseful, action-packed novel," Daniel Jolley reports.

Steven Manchester delves into the psyche of a dying man in his novel At Best, Twelve Months. "The language is simple and easy to read, the dialogue spontaneous and vivid," Liana Metal says. "The scenes have action and are moving and full of emotions. They invoke feelings of despair, then compassion, love and finally courage to face life as it is."

Marvel's New Mangaverse explodes with The Rings of Fate. "This Mangaverse will never replace the main and Ultimate Marvel universes in popularity, I think, but it's fun, refreshing and, dare I say it, cute. It's a nice change, a treat to read and I certainly wouldn't mind coming back for another visit," Tom Knapp says. "Of course, being manga, the women are all small-bodied, big-breasted and possibly underage, but hey, if you don't like that sort of thing don't pick up a book with the word 'manga' on the cover."

Not everyone sees superheroes as a boon to society, as shown in Anarchy, the fifth volume of Powers. "Before it's all sorted out, there are more messy deaths -- par for the course with this title -- and a bit of police brutality," Tom says. "There are tears, laughter and some well-earned applause. And, by the end, you'll have a better understanding of the mentality found in a world where the mighty walk -- or fly -- among us."

John Constantine is Haunted by the ghost of an ex-girlfriend in this story of magical abuse and revenge. "I'm not a big fan of artist John Higgins' work -- his lines are stiff, and he seems to have some kind of GQ ideal of Constantine's appearance -- but his style suits this tale better than it did Son of Man, the final Hellblazer arc by Garth Ennis," Tom says. "Haunted, written by Warren Ellis, is dark, disturbing and a little grotesque, and it just may haunt readers even as it sets poor Isabel's spirit to rest."

The guard at the heart of Honor & Duty stands largely in the background as great events take place in the Star Wars universe around him. "Honor & Duty is not about great events that shatter the Republic or threaten the Empire," Tom says. "It's a stand-alone book that looks at an average guy in service to the government, a man who believes in what he's doing to the bitter end."

Michael Vance settles in for a slize of Pizzeria Kamikaze. A quest through purgatory is the "darn interesting premise" of this book, Michael says. "To sweeten the deal, the art is intriguing, the dialogue (loaded with profanity) rings true and (thank God, thank God) this is NOT a graphic novel about the battle between good and evil!"

Vicki Leon reveals the Uppity Women of Ancient Times in a fascinating -- and also frustrating -- book. "Uppity Women of Ancient Times has missed its calling as a coffeetable book," says Jennifer Mo. "Dazzled by glossy colour photos of friezes, vases, coins and sculptures of ancient women, what reader would be perturbed by the lack of documentation or the laboriously hip prose of the text inside?"

The late Caroline Knapp ruminated on a great many things, and some of her thoughts are collected in The Merry Recluse: A Life in Essays. "The columns are presented thematically rather than chronologically, in sections about family relationships, grief/recovery/sobriety, the state of the world and personal reflections," says Jessica. "The true gems are the essays that expound on the topics of her earlier works Drinking and Appetites."

John Scalzi de-Internets his blog with You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop. Read it, Sarah Meador says, "and you'll uncover the most judgmental, opinionated and outright entertaining book about writing in years. ... Scalzi's writing is tight, to the point and funny without being forced. It's also recognizably true, sometimes to the point of discomfort."

Cynthia Highsmith-Hooks reveals great depth of feeling in The Soul of a Black Woman: From a Whisper to a Shout. "After reading the poetry in her book, one can't help but cheer for her," Renee Harmon says. "Her poems were written to help her cope with a part of her life that had to be very confusing. You'll find yourself wishing you could remember each and every poem word for word."

Roger Ebert tells it like he sees it in Your Movie Sucks. "Love him or hate him, he knows his stuff. And he doesn't pull punches; when Ebert likes a movie, he is unstinting with his praise, but when he's not impressed, you might want to check your ego at the door," Tom Knapp says. "Suffice it to say, if Mr. Ebert ever wants to write a movie review for Rambles.NET, we'll do our best to find him room."

Jen Kopf twirls and dips in a Mad Hot Ballroom. "The boy stands in an elementary school gymnasium, shakes his hand, shivers his shoulders and grimaces. You can almost read his mind: Cootieees!" Jen says. "He's just been directed to hold a girl's hand as part of his ballroom dance lessons and, in that brief moment, he encapsulates everything that's great about Mad Hot Ballroom."

More's on the way! (Meanwhile, be sure to browse the archives of our past editions, below.)