10 May 2008 to 21 June 2008

21 June 2008

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

Our host, editor/publisher and designated fiddler Tom Knapp leaves shortly for the untamed wilds of Maine, so there will not be an update next week. No, don't cry, don't fret, don't curl up in a fetal ball and whimper at the unjust world! We tossed a few extra goodies into this week's edition and you'll be seeing us back right here in two weeks. So dance, sing, celebrate life and read our reviews!!

Annalivia, the latest alternative traditional band, "is compiled of seasoned musicians who emerged from the potent Boston fiddle music scene: former Karen Casey protege and New Hampshire native Liz Simmons, former Glengarry Bhoy and fiddle ace Brendan Carey Block, guitarist/vocalist and member of The Sevens Flynn Cohen, and contra dance and former Wild Asparagus upright bass player extraordinaire/banjo plucker Stuart Kenney, also a member of The Sevens," Louise Dunphy states. "The new self-titled CD reflects their wandering musical roots."

Krista Detor covers the bases with Cover Their Eyes. "A piano-playing singer-songwriter, she appears to belong to the folk-rock school, but if she does, she attends a school with a mighty wide-ranging curriculum. She's bluesy, folky, an ironic chanteuse, a depression-diva, even a whistling light-hearted nonsense singer," says Michael Scott Cain. "Her writing is fabulous but it's her voice that is the story here. She doesn't seem to be singing at all; instead, Detor appears to be telling you a story in an intimate, low and husky voice that has musical qualities, but does not appear to be lifted in song as much as it whispers just to you."

Katie Moore sings "with a grace and depth that you may miss -- I certainly did -- the first time you spin Only Thing Worse," Jerome Clark says. "Most of the world of this CD feels like thinly populated nightclub and deserted early-morning city street -- music in a noirish landscape. ... It's romantic angst so desolate as to strike like a punch to the heart."

The 16th album from folk singer-songwriter Bruce Piephoff, The Chestnut Tree, "offers us a chance to meet 10 people we otherwise would probably never encounter. This odd but interesting assortment includes farmers, wanderers, eccentrics and even a few well-known individuals. Through detailed lyrics, we get insights into their unique perspectives on life," Corinne Smith says. "Piephoff and his 1968 Martin guitar are accompanied here by a small cadre of able musicians. But his voice and his words are the stars of the show."

Arden Kaywin experiences a Quarter Life Crisis in this folky recording. "Growing up, Arden Kaywin wanted to be the next Whitney or Mariah," Sherrill Fulghum notes. "As she grew older she discovered artists like Dave Matthews, Tori Amos and the Indigo Girls. Arden found that in playing pop music she could break all the rules she learned in her classical music classes. Thus she began living a double life of classical artist by day and folk-pop princess by night."

If you're in the mood for mellow, sad music, John Lindermuth says, "Sarah Hallman's self-titled debut album has a lot to offer. ... Her emotionally-charged voice is the kind designed to draw the listener in, insisting one pay attention so as not to miss a word of the lyrics. The lyrics of these 12 original tracks overflow with life experience, nostalgia and -- yes -- beauty."

Tom Savage will Never Shed No Tears over his music. "Savage's sound drifts from style to style, and at times you can hear echoes of other musicians in his work. His raspy voice and perspective are the commonality through the songs as both style and sound change from one track to the next," Paul de Bruijn remarks. "Diversity can be a very good thing and that is certainly the case with Never Shed No Tears. Tom Savage gives a sampler of some of the different approaches to folk music with well-written lyrics and music."

"Old Man" Luedecke comes to us from the Hinterland. "As unlikely as it may seem in a time and place where buzz tends to follow rock acts like Wintersleep and In-Flight Safety, one of eastern Canada's best releases of 2006 came from a guy with a banjo," Sean Roach opines. "All in all, it's an easy album to appreciate regardless of how deep you want to look. Upon close examination, the introspective lyrics make this an easy album to get attached to. But if that doesn't get you, the banjo-picking and foot-tapping surely will."

Jerome Clark takes a gander at two Jan Bell projects: Songs for Love Drunk Sinners by Jan Bell & the Cheap Dates, and Leavin' Town by the Maybelles. "Her commitment to American musical roots -- to which, ironically or infuriatingly, most Americans fall somewhere between indifferent and oblivious -- pays off on these two recordings," Jerome says. "The Cheap Dates and the Maybelles are distinct entities, the latter more rooted in hillbilly song traditions than the former, but both document aspects of Bell's gift and also her talent for finding comparably inclined (and comparably able) singers and pickers."

West of Memphis is offering up a slice of Honey Pie with the blues. But the biggest problem, says Michael Scott Cain, is the production. "The album sounds like it was recorded in a broom closet. The sound is muddy and weak. It all sounds far away and crushed together. It's not a case of turning the volume way up to get the music into your bones; you have to turn it up simply to hear it."

Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, a dazzling husband-and-wife team of Canadian fiddlers, chatted with Tom Knapp backstage after a recent performance in Lancaster, Pa. Read his interview, making music at home & away, to find out what makes these two amazing musicians tick.

While we're at it, Paul de Bruijn a long while back submitted a review that, while posted, somehow never made it into this listing! So, you all probably missed it -- and it's still worth reading today! So check out this long-obscured review of Madrigaia and Insigizi, two bands that performed together in Winnipeg way back in December 2005!

Tate Hallaway is Romancing the Dead in the third volume of her Garnet Lacey series. "Like the previous books in this series, there is no shortage of the magical and supernatural realm," Cherise Everhard says. "Garnet is a smart and sexy heroine, she is strong in her magic and in her convictions, yet she has no trouble showing her very real and sweet softer side. That makes her extremely tangible and these books incredibly lifelike."

Doranna Durgin sets a modern tale of Celtic magic in the Feral Darkness. "Feral Darkness is a very nicely balanced fantasy romance with a decent amount of action interspersed. It definitely keeps you reading," says Becky Kyle. "This novel is highly recommended for dog lovers, fantasy lovers and romance lovers all."

Misty Massey takes piracy to a new level in her fantasy novel, Mad Kestrel. "Mad Kestrel is a treat of a read," Tom Knapp says. "Fast-paced, but never rushed, the plot rushes like a raging whirlpool around a darling of a heroine. For her part, Kes is good at what she does, but not so superior as to be an unbelievable protagonist. Mix in a dandy supporting crew and some good, old-fashioned nautical rollicks, and you'll be waiting eagerly for the sequel."

Brant Randall reaps a Blood Harvest in a novel set when the Ku Klux Klan was active throughout the United States. "Brant might be telling a fictional murder-mystery tale, but he does a fine job of expressing the small time country feel of rural Massachusetts in 1929," Wil Owen says. "Murder is a serious subject. The hate and actions of the KKK are deplorable. Yet, I found myself chuckling several times every chapter -- and these chapters are short! The themes of the novel are a little bit adult and the humor definitely male, I would think. But I can definitely say there is an audience for Blood Harvest. It was highly entertaining."

Michael Chabon explores an alternate world with The Yiddish Policemen's Union. "Chabon's novel had the makings of a great, fictional small-town murder case, reminiscent of films by the Coen brothers, most notably 1996's Fargo and last year's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, which earned the boys a slew of Oscars at the most recent ceremony," says Eric Hughes. "But comparisons end there between both the Coen brothers' brilliancy and Chabon's ability to write a great small-town murder novel. About three-quarters of the way through, Chabon's simple, highly detailed plot balloons into a conspiracy with global implications, a disastrous change in story flow that quite frankly I tried my best to buy, but couldn't."

Louis Garafalo touches on Native American life in his novel, The Sassamon Circle, set in the 1600s. "The author is excellent in his depiction of a new land being explored and settled. He is also sensitive -- in the most part -- to the earlier inhabitants and gives the reader a good sense of place and personality," Nicky Rossiter says. "However, it is in his treatment of the settlers that his genetic heritage shines through."

Travis Klingaman explores The Battle Within in a novel about tragedy, hedonism and epiphanies. "While the author creates a protagonist who is developed well as a character, I found this character to be pretty unsympathetic and not someone whom I could respect or want to know," Chris McCallister says. "There are also a few basic flaws with the writing itself. The point-of-view keeps shifting, from a first-person narrative to a third-person, omniscient commentary. These shifts are abrupt and frequent, thus disrupting the flow of the story."

Is it graphic novels you're wanting next? Well, we got 'em!

The sad sack has his day in Wanted in a graphic novel about bad guys who run the world in secret. "Now, this is a book about villains, so expect them to do bad, nasty, horrible things. Readers may be shocked at times at the actions -- some of which occur off-page -- these characters take. Then again, the degree of profanity and nudity should ensure this book is being read only by adults. So, now that all the kids have left the room, let's be frank and admit up front that, if you're looking for a brightly garbed hero to swoop in and 'fix' things, you've got the wrong book," Tom Knapp warns. "But for readers who enjoy a dark story set in a dark world, Wanted fits the bill. Portions of Wanted are utterly depraved and twisted. Some bits are light, even funny. Heck, you're going to find some of these villains quite charming, really."

The cream of the DC Comics crop rise to the surface in The Lords of Luck, the first collection from a revitalized The Brave & the Bold. "Writer Mark Waid and artist George Perez team up to tell the story, and it's a fun, fast and thrilling ride from start to finish," Tom says. "The action is well-plotted, the dialogue is fresh and the art is crisp, clean and explosive."

Ben Templesmith takes over the 30 Days of Night franchise for the stand-alone story Red Snow. "Templesmith, who worked with Steve Niles to define the look and feel of the 30 Days of Night series of vampire graphic novels, steps out on his own with Red Snow and creates a book that matches, maybe even exceeds everything that has gone before," Tom comments. "The story is vividly, vibrantly told, as one should expect from Templesmith. Stingy in his use of color, he makes ever hue count; when there's fire, it glows, and when there's blood, it bleeds from the page."

Although Spider-Man's name is on the cover, Spider-Man's Tangled Web #1 isn't really about the costumed superhero. "Tangled Web is an out-of-continuity series, of which this is the first collection, that looks instead at the characters large and small who exist on the periphery of Spider-Man's world. These are their stories, not his," Tom says. "It's an intriguing concept and, by and large, the three tales collected here are fine examples of a good idea in action."

Daniel Pinchbeck is preparing for 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. "It is a heavy, serious read, a cross between memoirs, environmentalism, scientific research, metaphysics, folklore, anthropology, astronomy and mythology -- all saturated with psychedelics," says Karen Elkins. "If it does nothing else, it will blast you out of your comfort zone and shake up your cozy way of thinking. The facts in the introduction alone should be enough to jolt even the most lethargic to action."

Sue Patton Thoele employs her experience in psychotherapy in The Mindful Woman: Gentle practices for restoring calm, finding balance & opening your heart. "The book is divided into 10 chapters that are easy to read and understand and, moreover, practice," Liana Metal says. "Any woman can use it regardless of her faith or religion, and it can certainly be valuable in a variety of cases. ... It caters to all women on this planet, and I would say that it is a mini-bible every woman should have and consult."

This week, movie reviewer Dale Hill joins the team with a look at Kung Fu Panda. "If you're looking for this year's animated classic, a feature that will measure up to last year's Ratatouille (my choice as best film of 2007), you should check out Kung Fu Panda, which is a stupid-sounding title for a surprisingly endearing movie. It's not Ratatouille, but it'll do 'til the next Ratatouille comes along," Dale says.

He adds: "Some people have questioned the violence in Kung Fu Panda. The training and combat scenes are indeed very exciting, and may make little kids want to whirl and fly and kick and punch. My thought is that it's a cartoon, for crying out loud. I grew up on Looney Tunes and I didn't turn into a psychopath, because at a very early age my mom explained to me the difference between Elmer Fudd's shotgun and the real thing. I assume you're doing the same with your kids."

Lots more is on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

14 June 2008

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

Wishing a great weekend to everyone who is a father, or who ever had one!!!

Red Hot Chilli Pipers perform Bagrock to the Masses. "Bagpipes with attitude! Drums with a Scottish accent! A blazing rock band and a show so hot it carries its own health warning," Louise Dunphy exclaims. "The Red Hot Chilli Pipers have been rocking the world from New York to Beijing with musicianship of the highest order and a passion for pipes that will leave you breathless."

Michael Braudy and River Alexander invite you to share a Celtic Afternoon Concert with them. "This live recording brings you no fewer than 22 tracks of what the performers call 'spiritual music of Ireland and Scotland,'" Nicky Rossiter says. "Michael Braudy is an accomplished violinist who has played in venues around the world and River Alexander, a multi-instrumentalist, ably abets him."

Ron Hynes is pushing more than 30 years of music with the release of this self-titled CD. "Canada is thick with comparably talented artists whose names and accomplishments never make it south of the border to catch the attention of (United States of) Americans, too many of them only marginally aware of the admirable and interesting nation to their north," Jerome Clark states. "We American folkniks will have heard of Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson and perhaps a handful of the younger roots-based bands such as Great Big Sea, the Wailin' Jennys and the Duhks. Worthy as they are, though, they are hardly the end of the story."

The Mugwumps "were a sort of supergroup back before the members got super," says Michael Scott Cain. "Jim Hendricks and then-wife Cass Eliot came from the folk group the Big Three, while Zal Yanofsky and Denny Doherty had served time in the Halifax Three, a Canadian folk group. These folks, though, would become famous in other groups -- Yanofsky as the lead guitarist in the Lovin' Spoonful while Doherty and Eliot, of course, wound up in the Mamas & the Papas." This rerelease of The Mugwumps, he adds, represents "virtually everything recorded by Mugwumps."

Alex Clements tickles the ivories on Emily's Song. "This is a very personal album of piano music by an expert jazz player and composer," Nicky Rossiter says. "There are not any hits on offer here, and certainly nothing you're likely to hear on the radio, but you will get a beautifully relaxing 53 minutes to stretch out, chill and soak up the music."

Talia Segal is a Nonprophet concern with this sampling of music. "Segal's debut EP -- five songs, 15 minutes -- is designed to showcase her talent," says Michael Scott Cain. "Her voice is willowy but strong, with husky overtones, flexible enough to caress a ballad or rock out on an uptempo song."

Vicki Genfan gets Up Close & Personal with the fruits of three years' labor. "Genfan says she worried about which music the audience would prefer and finally decided to release it all so that we get to choose. With this double CD, she says, we listeners can pick our favorites from each disc and make yet another collection on our iPods," Michael says. "An excellent idea."

Chantal Chamandy believes that Love Needs You as much as you need it. "This angel of song is a testament to how the Earth today has become a multi-cultural world," Sherrill Fulghum says. "The music of Chantal Chamandy may be labeled as pop, but it most definitely is world music in content and sound."

Kemp Harris's vocals are "at the core of Edenton and they shape the tone of most of the songs. The music backing his vocals simply confirms that you are listening to the blues," Paul de Bruijn says. "Harris is a great singer and his vocals are strong, often forming the mood and style of the song as much as the music does. Edenton is worth listening to for that alone."

Ken Emerson shares a Hawaiian flair on Slack & Steel: Kaua'i Style. "Singer and guitarist Ken Emerson comes from deep Hawaiian roots, with parents and relatives accomplished musicians who played the islands' traditional tunes as well as jazz, swing and pop from the mainland," Jerome Clark says. "When the music is so consistently inspired, it's hard to pick out a particular favorite. You can drop in anywhere and count on full satisfaction."

The Cherokee National Youth Choir spreads a little Comfort & Joy with a holiday album that is pleasant listening all year round. "This one was awarded Best Gospel or Inspirational Recording at the 9th annual Native American Music Awards and was nominated for Best Spiritual Recording at the 2007 Indian Summer Music Awards," notes Karen Elkins. "Comfort & Joy delivers exactly what the title indicates and is one Christmas CD that you should not be without. It will lift your spirits and bring a smile to your face."

A pair of Canadian fiddle powerhouses -- Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy -- took time out of their busy touring schedules and active home life (they are married and have two young children together, after all) to perform together in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, this past week. Tom Knapp has the scoop on the performance right here. "Although it was still above 90 degrees in the shade when the music started shortly after 7:30 p.m., the dual fiddle wizardry of Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy was like a refreshing breeze over the crowd even as the married Canadian pair heated up the stage at the Long's Park Amphitheater," he says. "The couple demonstrated amazing synergy, tossing tunes back and forth between them, sometimes sharing melodies or harmonizing to one another, occasionally stepping back and allowing the other the full glare of the spotlight. And the audience didn't waste time, either, clapping and dancing from the very first set."

Next week, we'll have a backstage interview with the happy couple from immediately following this show. (By the way, the performance review above marks Tom Knapp's 2,000th review for Rambles.NET!)

Hallie N. Love and Bonnie Larson take Native American folklore back to the beginning in Watakame's Journey: The Story of the Great Flood & the New World. "Once you have studied the paintings, settle down for the story of how the Huichol Indians came to live in the Sierra Madre mountain region north of Guadalajara, Mexico. This story happened long ago, in the beginning, when the world was inhabited by animal people," Karen Elkins says. "Watakame's Journey is an outstanding value. It far surpasses the average book in looks, readability, construction and dissemination of cultural information. It is truly a book to last a lifetime."

Stephen L. Pevar examines the legal side of Native American affairs in The Rights of Indians & Tribes: The Authoritative ACLU Guide to Indian & Tribal Rights. "The Rights of Indians & Tribes is a powerhouse of information for all persons having any connection with Native Americans or reservations," says Karen. "It is a mixture of writings on history, culture, law, race relations and political science. While it will not appeal to everyone, it is an interesting book that is informative and fun to read."

Garasamo Maccagnone supplies readers with a trio of tales in St. John of the Midfield. "After reading St. John of the Midfield, I am more than halfway convinced Garasamo Maccagnone could write a riveting yarn about used toothpicks or navel lint. He writes like a storyteller speaks, with rhythm, perfect pace, pauses, the right degree of detail, well-described settings and well-developed, credible characters," Chris McCallister says. "These three tales are storytelling at its best."

Jayel Gibson swoops aloft with a selection of Damselflies. "The story offers a vivid exploration of the past cultures and a trip into the kingdom of damselflies," Liana Metal says. "Interesting images and sceneries appear throughout the story, carrying a reader's imagination back to those olden times. The author creates a magical world that can certainly fascinate the fantasy audience it addresses."

James L. Nelson pays homage to The Only Life That Mattered in this retelling of the lives of notorious female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read. "This review was previously published in a somewhat different form on Aug. 12, 2006. That review was for The Sweet Trade by Elizabeth Garrett. However, it turns out that Elizabeth Garrett is James L. Nelson, and Nelson is Garrett. It is not without irony I reveal that this novel about women in men's clothing was first published by a man disguised as a woman!" Tom Knapp says. "Nelson has a fine voice for narration, and a keen sense of story. This one unfolds with a few surprises along the way, and leaves you with a conviction that the author knew his subjects in and out before starting to write. He might show occasional aspirations to be a romance writer here and there -- he did first publish this book using the pen name Elizabeth Garrett, after all -- but those out-of-place scenes are thankfully few and far between."

Carrie Vaughn is ready with some light summer reading when Kitty Takes a Holiday. "Probably my favorite aspect of Vaughn's writing is her character development and depth," says Becky Kyle. "Kitty's gone through a lot in three fairly short books and Vaughn does a stellar job pulling it off. Kitty stays true to her goal of being a positive force for lycanthropes and sticking by her values even if she has to fight her inner wolf every step of the way to make it."

MaryJanice Davidson goes all werewolfy with Derik's Bane. "Davidson's humor kept me laughing," Becky says. "The book is a light and quick read. But realize this is MUCH more of a romance than an urban fantasy."

It is made clear by the author of Meanwhile: A Biography of Milton Caniff and many other creative folk "that Milton Caniff was one of the greatest creators of popular fiction of the 20th century," Michael Vance reports. "Caniff was and remains one of the greatest cartoonists who ever lived. Indeed, in his day, his reality-based art and storytelling were a huge influence on the newspaper comics page and in comic books."

Laurell K. Hamilton provides a graphic prequel to her popular Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series with The First Death. "Anyone who loves all things Anita Blake is going to love it. Everyone else, not so much," Tom Knapp says. "The story is empty calories, a slipshod cut-and-paste yarn that plods through the narrative in some places and rushes willynilly through sections that might have benefited from a little more exposition. It's hard not to think Hamilton, who has yet to employ much subtlety or depth in her writing, didn't just dash this one off on the back of an envelope while trying on Nikes one slow afternoon."

The war that led to the evacuation of all Fables from the Homelands to New York City is described in gritty detail in The Last Castle, a prequel to the popular Vertigo title. "For fans of the ongoing series, this prequel fills in some noteworthy gaps in our knowledge," Tom says. "Illustrations by penciller Craig Hamilton and inker/layour artist P. Craig Russell are not as finely wrought as we've come to expect ... but they tell the story in a pleasant storybook fashion. All in all, The Last Castle is a valuable addition to the Fables canon."

Batman's War Games begin in Outbreak. "The story focuses less on Batman's usual assortment of costumed and gimmicky foes, more on organized crime, turf building and gangland hits. It's intense and gripping -- especially when the action moves to the school and children become involved," Tom says. "War Games dominated the various Batman titles in 2004, and this collection brings the story together in a neat and easy-to-follow package. It's a solid read that should please Bat fans and casual readers alike."

The soundtrack to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou caught Eric Hughes' ear. "Sir Wes Anderson, writer/director/producer of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, it must be asked: Where was your mind when you decided to combine the classic David Bowie with ... Portuguese?" Eric wonders. "That's right, and enlisting Brazilian musician Seu Jorge to acoustically cover them? Well, I admit your decision was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. And I wish I had just a sliver of the creative juices, Wes, that influence your eccentric choices."

Jen Kopf chooses to spend a culturally enriching Night at the Museum. "Based on the book by Milan Trenc, Night is about the misadventures of Larry Daley, night watchman, whose newest job at the Museum of Natural History lands him smack in the middle of a ring of thieves," Jen says. "It's all lightweight and silliness (naturally, since the screenplay is penned by a pair of Reno 911 regulars), except for a plotline involving custody issues and Larry's son. The idea is that young Nick, often disappointed by Larry's missteps, will see his father in a new light once he spends a night in the magical museum. Trouble is, the custody scenes thud -- and Night at the Museum could have been just as magical without them."

Lots more is on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

7 June 2008

Let us, like beings of intelligence and vision,
converse about life, nature and the future of the Earth.
- Jamie Delano

Hey! One of the more popular sections of Rambles.NET is the Maritimes music department, which features the talents of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. (Newfoundland technically is not part of the Canadian Maritimes, but the music shares a kinship so we slip it in there anyway.) This subset of Celtic/folk music is wildly popular and features the work of some astonishingly gifted performers, but it doesn't always get the same level of attention as its Irish and Scottish brethren. And, sadly, recordings of the music can often be much harder to find outside of the Canadian provinces. Hence, we often get letters from readers asking where they can buy this great stuff, and often, we don't know where to send them.

Now we do. The Blue Heron Gift Shop, sitting on the picturesque main street of Baddeck in central Cape Breton, specializes in, well, everything I just told you about. And they're online, so you don't have to go to Cape Breton -- although I highly recommend doing so. Anyway, we would like you folks to get to hear all the cool music we're telling you about, so if you have a hankering for a little Maritimes music, drop the Blue Heron a line. Tell 'em Rambles sent you.

Eliza Gilkyson sings of a Beautiful World on this new release from Red House. "Eliza Gilkyson is often spoken of in the same breath as Lucinda Williams. It's true they're both rooted, literate singer-songwriters and they're close to the same age, but they're far from identical," Jerome Clark opines. "For one thing, blues, a frequent reference in Williams' music, is a minor presence in Gilkyson's sound. Unlike Williams, Gilkyson is politically outspoken."

Andrew Cash is sings of homicide with a mathematical twist on Murder =. (OK, not really, but the "equals" sign certainly suggests it!) "Andrew Cash is nothing if not persistent," Gregg Thurlbeck says. "He's been a working musician for nearly three decades, starting out in the Toronto punk scene as the vocalist/guitarist for the socially relevant, sonically vibrant three-piece outfit L'Etranger. He went on to a solo career that scored a couple of hit singles in Canada, then teamed up with brother Peter for a handful of albums as the Cash Brothers. Now Andrew is back with a new, independently released solo album."

Lee Penn Sky offers this Prelude to Hindsight for your consideration. "If there's a sound that comes directly from the plains and the prairie, Lee Penn Sky's music may be the best example of it," says Corinne H. Smith. "Or maybe listeners can simply connect emotionally to Lee as he so completely expresses the anguish of living in one place while the people who mean the most to him are in quite another."

Mick Overman & the Maniacs "aren't very maniacal" on Good Thing Happen, notes Michael Scott Cain. "In fact, they're laid back and quiet. ... It's not bad but Good Thing Happen offers very little that can't be heard from hundreds of bar bands throughout the nation."

Georgie Jessup lays bare a Woman in a Man's Suit in this recording of bluesy folk. "For Jessup, his story-style song lyrics take precedence while the music is purely secondary," says Sherrill Fulghum. "At times the music is merely a background of chords and notes to guide the singer along on his journey of telling the tale. A believer that we are all related in the human condition, Jessup uses his music to challenge his audiences to look deep inside themselves and search their prejudices."

Chris Whitley offers to share a little Weed with his fans. "Serving as a bridge between live performance and studio recording, Chris Whitley effectively captured the best of both worlds on Weed using only a battered National steel guitar, his mournful husky voice and a judiciously placed microphone," Dirk Logemann says. "I won't pretend I understood all of the lyrics, but it's clear they are one with the music, combining a sense of alienation and longing, both spiritual and physical with creative and evocative imagery."

Achillea conjures the sounds of Enigma on Amadas Estrellas, says Jennifer Mo. "It's a hard act to follow, given our increasingly jaded ears. But with a little help from Spanish singer Luisa Fernandez, former Enigma member Jens Gad pulls it off on Achillea's second release. ... Because Gad doesn't so much renovate his sound as update it, the result is a CD that amps up the sensuality but retains all the lush ambience that characterised Enigma."

Simaku offers Echoes from Iliria for anyone who has ever wondered what Albanian folk music mixed with a modern electronic beat might sound like, Wil Owen says. "For the most part, I enjoy the mix of what sounds ancient or old-world but with a new-sounding twist," Wil says. "I like Simaku's vocals. There is nothing wrong with the melodies. But the male vocalist needs to keep his mouth shut -- or get his own CD so he doesn't have to be heard here."

Marcel Khalife proves himself to be "a one-man musical institution" with this Caress. "Caress brings together elements of both the Arabic tradition and Western influences," John Lindermuth says. "The title track features his virtuoso skill on the oud, while others showcase the piano, bass and violin in more familiar jazz veins."

Lauren Lucas wonders what might happen If I was Your Girl, despite a music-industry shakeup that nearly derailed her career before it began. "The crashing of the dream served as a wakeup call for Lucas. She set about developing her writing skills and working to define herself as an artist, recognizing that she was going to have to take much more control of her career," says Michael Scott Cain. "This five-song EP is her first step on the road back, and when she reaches the airwaves again -- and she will; there is too much talent here for that not to happen -- she'll be in a much better position."

Often enough -- and maybe too often -- innovation in bluegrass "amounts to softening of the sound with pop textures, chords and vocals," Jerome Clark says. "If the SteelDrivers are innovative, as they certainly are, they are not doing it by watering-down. What they're doing instead is giving bluegrass punch from other, more muscular directions. Those other directions are hard-core honkytonk -- not in itself all that surprising or original -- and also rock and soul. Now, that's new, particularly when you consider they're doing it within the genre's traditional acoustic stringband format." For more, check out Jerome's review of The SteelDrivers.

James H. Howard goes native with Shawnee! The Ceremonialism of a Native American Tribe & Its Cultural Background. "This book reads more like fiction than a cultural study," Karen Elkins says. "There is action, drama, suspense, mystery, folklore, fantasy and even humor. I wish all anthropologists wrote like this. Learning would be so much fun."

Originally published in 1968, Cherokee Animal Tales has been kept in print by Council Oak to keep these stories alive. "This 2006 edition is the seventh printing of a magnificent collection of children's stories," Karen says. "Cherokee Animal Tales is a wonderful collection of stories for children. This is an especially suitable book for reading aloud, so parents and grandparents will really appreciate this book. If you want a book to entertain one child or many, you cannot go wrong with this timeless classic."

Kelley Armstrong keeps on plugging with the Women of the Otherworld in Personal Demon. "Personal Demon definitely advances the overall story arc for this fascinating series," Becky Kyle remarks. "As always, Kelley Armstrong is excellent at character development and she's worked hard to keep the storylines consistent throughout."

Charlaine Harris captures the attention of two reviewers this week: Cherise Everhard and Becky Kyle both have opinions to share on her latest Southern Vampire novel, From Dead to Worse. "I honestly am such a fan of Charlaine Harris that I'd go just about anywhere she'd take me," Becky says. "From Dead to Worse is still very much worth the read if you are a diehard Sookie fan like I am, but this is honestly the first of the series I can't simply rave about." Cherise, meanwhile, says she "was all consumed in this book from page one, and when I reached the last page I debated whether or not to start reading it all over again. Had it not been for my impatiently waiting sister, I would have."

Marvin L. Zimmerman addresses The Ovum Factor in this novel about the destruction of Earth's ecology. "This story reads like science fiction, but it is quite credible in every aspect," says Liana Metal. "The characters are truthful and the dialogue vivid. ... It is an exciting book that should be read by everyone concerned about the environment. It is not only educational but entertaining as well, as it grasps the readers' interest from the first pages and maintains it through to the very last one."

Jennifer Donnelly heats up The Winter Rose in this sequel to The Tea Rose. "As in The Tea Rose, the plot is packed with twists, turns, misunderstandings and happenstances," says Donna Scanlon. "What would be trite in the hands of some writers is here colorful, purposeful storytelling. Jennifer Donnelly braids her story lines skillfully ... and she spikes the melodrama with enough humor to keep it from cloying."

Jon Saboe revisits The Days of Peleg in this "behemoth work of historical fiction." Karen Elkins says she "decided to read for one hour or so before going to sleep. But I could not stop reading! At 5 a.m. I became so sleepy that my eyes refused to focus. When I woke, I had to get right back to the story of Peleg's adventures. I sat there reading until I reached the final page."

The 30 Days of Night saga continues with this spotlight on Eben & Stella, the star-crossed lovers who started out as a sheriff and deputy and ended up as vampires. "Eben & Stella fills in the gaps between Dark Days and Return to Barrow, the second and third books in the long-running 30 Days of Night series created by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith," Tom Knapp says. "The story is little more than filler, however, and the developments spelled out here are completely nonessential to the greater 30 Days storyline. ... But what the book really lacks is the artistic hand of Templesmith, whose visual style truly established the look and feel of the series."

Manhunter has a new look and identity in the DC Universe, as revealed in Street Justice. "Questions aside, I enjoyed this book in part because it is so atypical among DC superhero tales," Tom says. "The writing by Marc Andreyko is tight and fluid, with the beginnings of a very interesting character's story. The art by Jesus Saiz (inked by Jimmy Palmiotti) is similarly fluid, crisp and a pleasure to read."

The sacrilege just keeps piling up in Battle Pope, hitting new, laugh-ridden heights in Pillow Talk. "The third volume of Battle Pope ... is packed to the gills with content that takes a bite out of modern religion, chews it up and spits it out with careless disdain for the fragile sensibilities of zealots who might accidentally stumble upon this book in their local comic-book store," Tom warns. "I keep thinking I should be shocked by this book. I feel I should set it aside with an appalled shake of my head and write a review warning all you readers to harken close and stay away from this one. But, damn it all, it's funny."

The Son of Samson is the star of this pair of books from Zondervan Press: The Judge of God and The Daughter of Dagon. "As enjoyable as the story is, Son of Samson would not be what it is without the artwork of Sergio Cariello," Mark Allen remarks. "It's the reason the book caught my eye in the first place. For those who have been reading comics for a long time, imagine a style that is equal parts John Buscema and Joe Staton, and you will have an idea of what Cariello's stellar work looks like. For those who have not, it should suffice to call this a style that is highly characterized, highly dramatic and as action-oriented as you could ever hope to expect. There is also, however, a flair for characterization and storytelling that is specific to Sergio, and that you won't find anywhere else."

Ian Brodie gets into the technical side of fantasy in Cameras in Narnia: How The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe Came to Life. "Brodie examines the role of each of the departments involved in making a movie, focusing on all the behind-the-scenes support people and what must happen before the actors even set foot on the sets," Laurie Thayer says. "The book is a visual treat, with numerous color photographs per page. Though the book is aimed at children, Brodie never talks down to his audience, which also makes it a perfect book for adults who are interested in the basics of movie-making."

Eric Hughes says No Country for Old Men "is an exercise in what Ethan and Joel Coen know best: crisp sound editing, dazzling visuals and showing, not telling. Staying extremely faithful to Cormac McCarthy's ambitious 2005 novel -- most of the film's action is taken word for word, and occurs in the same order -- the writer-director team does not disappoint in their translation of McCarthy's tale of incessant greed and the pitfalls of the human condition for the silver screen. ... No Country for Old Men was the best of the year, the Coen brothers' best to date and nothing short of a masterpiece."

Lots more is on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

30 May 2008

Words -- so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne

Happy birthday, beloved Kate!

Yes indeed, it's the editor's wife's birthday. Hoopla! Oh, and by the way...

Rambles.NET was born nine years ago, on May 30, 1999, after founder Tom Knapp became dissatisfied with other Internet review opportunities. What started as a small enterprise with the help of a few online friends has since grown by leaps and bounds; at present, the site boasts well over 11,000 reviews written by more than 200 people from all over the world. In our first month of existence, we got a few dozen hits -- now we get more than 2 million hits each month, and our reviews are quoted frequently on book jackets, CD promotional packets, websites and more.

We often thank our staff for the exceptional work they do, but it's equally important to thank our readers, without whom this site would be of little use. We appreciate the time you take to come by, read our reviews, share them around and let us know how we're doing. We're looking forward to marking our 10th anniversary next year!

Christel Rice has a case of Tunnel Vision when it comes to her songs. "Upon hearing the music of Christel Rice, you might think she was from the Emerald Isle itself," Sherrill Fulghum says of this Philadelphia native. "Tunnel Vision is an album that shows not all Irish music sounds the same. Traditional or contemporary tunes, it makes no difference -- it's all about having some good craic, and Christel provides the music to get things started."

Butch Baldassari and John Mock recreate the Music of O'Carolan: Ireland's Bard. What do you get when two of Nashville's finest musicians take on the music of Ireland's finest composer? A very good time indeed," says Michael Scott Cain. "The playing is amazing. Around my house, Music of O'Carolan has become a disc to be played daily."

Steve Eulberg is of good cheer on I Celebrate Life! "Eulberg is an innovative and accomplished musician who wrote the music on this CD inspired by his life and loves," Virginia MacIsaac says. "His tunes for mountain and hammered dulcimer have resulted in Eulberg being recognized as an award-winning singer-songwriter and musician. This CD shares much of that with us."

Thea Hopkins has stories to sing in Chickasaw. "'American short-story folk' is what singer-songwriter Thea Hopkins specializes in: descriptions of slices of everyday life from various parts of the country," Corinne H. Smith says. "Reflective of the human experience, some of the images are positive and some are decidedly not. Many explore commonalities that we can all relate to, like leaving a hometown or falling in love.

Barton Carroll sings for The Lost One. "Barton clearly is a guy who reads and thinks when he's not writing songs," Jerome Clark says. "In many ways Lost One recalls the sound of the original post-revival songwriters of the mid- to late 1960s, like early Tim Buckley, Steve Noonan, Jackson Browne, Randy Burns (to whom what ever happened?) and others, singing mostly personal lyrics to tuneful folk-like melodies."

Jon Shain comes plowing right on through an Army Jacket Winter. "Veteran acoustic blues guy and folkie Jon Shain moves out a little in his new CD," says Michael Scott Cain. "The tone is often upbeat when the lyrics are down so that an additional level of creative tension is built."

Deana Carter unlocks The Chain for this tribute to her father, longtime country guitarist Fred Carter Jr., featuring a selection of classic songs. "And for two-thirds of the album, she teams up with the music legend associated with each song," says C. Nathan Coyle. "Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Paul Simon, Jessi Colter, George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Shooter Jennings and John Anderson -- the presence of these country artists could sell the album all on its own."

Ben Weaver pierces a Paper Sky with his music. "The music Ben Weaver has crafted on Paper Sky tends to build off of dissonance, which in turn brings a certain darkness to his songs," Paul de Bruijn states. "Sometimes this works very well; other times this is what makes the song so hard to get into."

Sam Pacetti and Gabriel Valla form a Union of folk. "Union is worth it alone for the transcendent guitar-duet instrumental arrangement of 'Wildwood Flower,' otherwise a piece that long ago passed into the realms of insomnia cure," Jerome Clark says. "Florida guitarists Sam Pacetti & Gabriel Valla, however, remind us there is nothing wrong with a tune that is in truth well worth staying awake for. ... Recordings like Union are scarce in an era when rural rusticity on one side and urban singer-songwritery on the other represent the norm in acoustic music. With its tradition-informed but distinctive, richly melodic approach untainted by anything that smacks of the expected or the cliched, an album like this is to be treasured."

Johnny Whitehorse performs a selection of Totemic Flute Chants to honor the natural world. "The tracks are named after the animals they honor, so that we get such songs as 'Whale,' 'Elk' and 'Eagle,'" says Michael Scott Cain. "It is easy to visualize the animals that occasion each song; Whitehorse's writing and playing conjures them and he has a gift for capturing their essence in a melody."

The folks at Putumayo have crafted another winner in Latin Jazz. "If there was ever a perfect complement to a sweltering summer afternoon and an iced latte, Putumayo's chilled, swanky Latin Jazz is it," says Jennifer Mo. "Actually, go ahead and forego the latte and the summer: this CD does a fine job of conjuring their ambience without the calories, caffeine and mosquitoes."

Dorothy Doring aims for a little Southern Exposure with her smoke-filled lounge jazz sound. "Though Doring is based in Minnesota, she recorded Southern Exposure in New Orleans and dedicated this recording to the city, its history, its music and its people," Corinne H. Smith says. "She and her bandmates honor the jazz tradition of the delta with this album. Her voice is strong and expressive and a joy to listen to."

Michael deBeyer creates poetic connections in Change in a Razor-Backed Season. "The poems open and unfold, revealing the beauty and wonder as they progress," Paul de Bruijn says. "The poems are not about answers, save when an answer leads to more questions. In this lies the strength of Change in a Razor-backed Season."

Karen Macinerney begins her Tales of an Urban Werewolf with Howling at the Moon. "Howling at the Moon will be great for you if you enjoy very light chick lit in the vein of Janet Evanovich's work," says Becky Kyle. "Unfortunately, the characterization is light. We know the brand name of Sophie's car, purse, pantyhose, where she likes to shop, etc., but we don't get as many glimpses of her -- and what we do see is not favorable. ... Further, Sophie's lack of concern about innocent citizens being attacked by werewolves doesn't mark her as likable."

Nicole Del Sesto takes readers on an All Encompassing Trip. "They don't call it bizarro fiction for nothing," remarks Eric Hughes. "Between a recommendation and outright denial, I choose the latter, assuming the majority of readers would plead for something a bit more sophisticated. But if no, give it a whirl. You're in for quite the trip."

Simon R. Green offers up volume six of Nightside with Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth. "While still good, Serpent's Tooth is my least favorite of Simon R. Green's Nightside series to date," Becky reluctantly confesses. "The novel has an over-narrated and rushed quality that takes some of the life from the work. Still, I love Green's characters and the book is worth the price and the read to find out what happens."

Scott Westerfeld gets elitist with the Specials. "As with the other two books in the series, the pace is frenetic and packed with action, and readers would be well advised to read the first two books before tackling Specials," says Donna Scanlon. "Scott Westerfeld clearly makes the point that no issue is black or white, bad or good, but rather that whatever one decides should be chosen with thought and care. Westerfeld also doesn't tie things up neatly with a bow."

Elmore Hammes wins the prize for this edition's longest title with The Holmes & Watson Mysterious Events & Objects Consortium: The Case of the Witch's Talisman. "Hammes has given us a nice sample of realistic 12-year-old characters. There are friendships, crushes, alliances and mini-feuds," Chris McCallister says. "Another strength is the character of the witch. This is one gleefully nasty and cruel villainness. She is not on a par with Sauron, but I would like to see her go up against Voldemort. Once the witch enters the story, the book becomes entrancing and is hard to put down."

Ron King crafts a hard-to-describe story in The Quantum July. "This is Ron King's debut novel, and I hope there are many more to come if he can maintain this level of storytelling," Chris says. "The book is categorized as for readers ages 9 through 12. ... I also think adults can find this book to be an easy but very enjoyable reading experience."

It might feel real, but It's Only a Movie when Catwoman is stalked by the Film Freak. "It's Only a Movie entwines a series of plot threads into a single collection, all following hard on the heels of The Replacements, in which Selina Kyle has given birth, retired and set up a young, fairly unprepared pal, Holly Robinson, as Catwoman in her place," Tom Knapp says. "All in all, It's Only a Movie is a fairly dense collection in which numerous threads begin, end or continue unwinding."

There is No Future for You when Buffy and Faith, the vampire slayers, lock horns in season eight of the series. "I wish this episode had been filmed for no other reason than a desire to see Faith rubbing elbows with the young nobility of England, poncing about in a frilly dress and a crisp Windsor accent. Oh, and the scene in the tub wouldn't be half bad, either," Tom says. "The Buffy crowd continues to be in good hands. Let's hurry up with volume three!"

Next, Tom takes a look at the role of Iron Man in Marvel's big Civil War crossover event, which "changed a lot of things for a lot of characters. For Tony 'Iron Man' Stark, it put him in the unusual position of being -- at least from a majority of the readers' viewpoint -- the villain. ... While some stories presented him as a cold, calculating strategist, these stories show his heart."

C. Nathan Coyle ducks for cover with Second Wave, which "offers as realistic a portrayal as one could get when it's an all-out alien invasion. Everything about this graphic novel finds the happy medium of the 'aliens attack' genre. ... In this particular story, the aliens aren't nearly as interesting as the characters; we don't get a bunch of morose, sadsacks simply struggling for survival -- we get an intriguing mixture of humor, anger, sadness and persistence."

D.L. Birchfield explains How Choctaws Invented Civilization & Why Choctaws Will Conquer the World. "Birchfield is a brilliant satirist," says Alicia Karen Elkins. "His sarcasm is only exceeded by his exuberance for storytelling ... with a truckload of humor. You will not be able to put this book down or even to interrupt your reading long enough to get a cup of coffee (a Choctaw habit, as I have learned from this book). You cannot turn the page quickly enough to get to that next sentence."

Jen Kopf rounds out this anniversary edition with a pair of cinematic reviews. Take it away, Jen!

Jen just hasn't been the same Since Otar Left. "Every once in a while, I'm reminded that, in the hands of an insightful filmmaker and wonderful actors, an extraordinary movie can be made about the stories of ordinary people," she says. "And that, in the name of love, even the most 'ordinary' of lives can be lived as a generous gift."

Our Jen also spent some memorable time in Hollywoodland, the tale of 1950s Superman star George Reeves. "Considering the detective, Louis Simo, is played by Oscar winner Adrian Brody, it astonishes me to write this: I wish there had been less of Brody and more of Ben Affleck as Reeves," Jen concedes. "Yes, the Affleck of Jersey Girl, Gigli and Bounce has the jawline and the chops to play a mortal Superman. His Reeves has a sadness around the edges, a kind of charm that knows its days are numbered."

Lots more is on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

24 May 2008

The time has come for all of us as Americans to stop thinking in little ways. We are too diverse and too myriad to fit into an antebellum mind set. It's time to believe in an America of inclusion, not exclusion.
- Rev. Webster "Kit" Howell

We don't usually use this forum to promote other sites, but I feel the need to share a pair with all y'all: The Comics Curmudgeon reads the daily newspaper strips so you don't have to, and Judge a Book By Its Cover does precisely what its name suggests. Both sites are written by entertainingly fun people, and I think you'll have a blast having a look. Cheers!

Now, onward and upward with today's reviews!

The distinctive folk music of the British countryside is captured on It Was on a Market Day: English Traditional Folk Singers. "If you haven't heard English folk songs sung in what you might call the original language, here's a good place to start," Jerome Clark says. "And if you already know that language, Market speaks it with an elegance you will appreciate."

A pair of Irish recordings are also scrutinized this week by Jerome: Welcome Here Again by Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, and Ann Heymann's Cruit go nOr (Harp of Gold). "Though Welcome and Harp approach old musical traditions in very different ways, both find ways to express them in unique, creative arrangements without diluting their core character and power," Jerome says. "If you're attracted to Celtic music and its relatives, these recordings are essential."

Linda Rice Johnston has A Bird in the Wood for your listening pleasure. Nicky Rossiter says the album is a "fantastic collection of traditional songs sung without undo ornamentation and delivered by a singer so obviously in love with the tradition. ... Linda has a voice well-suited to her choice of material, and the backing is kept spare and entirely suited."

Ola Backstrom, a fine violin player known for his work with Swap (featuring Karen Tweed), the Simon Simonsson Kvartet, Den Fule, Virvla and Traton, goes it alone on Boggdansen. "All in all you can find 23 original tunes learned from different famous Swedish fiddle players," Adolf Goriup says. "Backstrom plays these tunes with much skill, and his work with the bow produces a wonderfully clear tone."

Sarah Burrill combines strength and beauty in her album If By Chance. "Burrill and her music are undiscovered gems in the otherwise too often predictable world of today's acoustic singer-songwriter music scene," says Elizabeth Marks. "If By Chance takes the listener on a journey on which Burrill travels through both the dark and light musicscapes on her way to recovery from a rare form of breast cancer."

Hungrytown, a.k.a. husband-and-wife team Ken Anderson and Rebecca Hall, "has a charmingly low-keyed sound" on the duo's self-titled CD. "You may think you've heard it before, but if your experience is like mine, you'll have a hard time placing it precisely, which probably means Anderson and Hall are more distinctive than you might have thought on first hearing," Jerome Clark says. "If Hungrytown is readily identifiable as a folk outfit, it is not one that sounds like any you've encountered recently."

Arielle Silver offers up Something Pretty Something True with vocal intensity. "Silver's voice is one of the strengths of Something Pretty Something True, and when the music is stripped back you need the vocals to be very good," Paul de Bruijn says. "The CD is pretty damn good most of the way through."

Joe Dolce overcomes his "shaddap you face" past with The Wind Cries Mary. "Like the overnight success who has spent years honing his craft, the so-called 'one-hit wonder' also has a successful life away from the spotlight, and it was a joy for me to discover Dolce still producing music," Nicky Rossiter says. "It was fascinating to hear Dolce again after all these years and to realize how he is still experimenting with the music to reach as wide an audience as possible -- and succeeding about 99 percent of the time."

Tim O'Brien is something of a musical Chameleon, and there's plenty to see in his latest release. "Chameleon succeeds because O'Brien needs no more than what he brings," Jerome Clark says. "Anything else would have felt beside the point. He's been at this long enough not to waste time and space with second-rate compositions."

The Earl Brothers have a little Moonshine worth sharing. "Some writers have called it 'gothic bluegrass.' Gothic it surely is; whether it's bluegrass, however, is not so clear," Jerome says. "Certainly, bluegrass elements -- in the vocal harmonies and the Scruggs-style banjo -- are there. Beyond that, though, the Earls give the impression of the kind of band one might have encountered deep in the Southern mountains just prior to the emergence of bluegrass in the mid-1940s. They're half old-time and half hard-core honkytonk. The sound is rough, far removed from the smoothness and slickness associated with more conventional bluegrass sounds."

Monster Mike Welch does the blues Just Like It Is. "Each time I listened to the CD, the same thing happened," says Michael Scott Cain. "I began listening in as receptive mood but as it went on, I found my attention flagging. My mind drifting. Good blues should never allow you to drift."

T.L. Hines tries Waking Lazarus in this novel about a boy who apparently cannot die -- or at least, he can't stay dead for long. "Hines has given us an excellent suspense thriller, with some twists that snuck up on me rather nicely. About 70 percent of the book focuses on Jude and his search for normalcy, in spite of being the Comeback Kid," Chris McCallister says. "This is a well-written thriller with a fast pace, but also a richness in character development that is sometimes missing in thrillers."

Jacqueline Church Simonds goes a-pirating with Captain Mary, Buccaneer. "I suppose I would have enjoyed the book more if I found the protagonist likable -- or even vaguely sympathetic -- but she treats everyone but her captives badly and then seems surprised when they turn against her," Tom Knapp says. "It might have been easier to pity Mary if she didn't spend quite so much time pitying herself."

Richelle Mead opens enrollment at the Vampire Academy as a follow-up to her Succubus Blues. "Vampire Academy is a great read," says Becky Kyle. "Mead's idea of vampires is slightly different than what I am accustomed to, but she does a great job explaining how Dhampirs, Morois and Strigois differ. Her world and rules are very good, for the most part. Her characters are people you wanted to care about and read more about."

Patricia Briggs returns for another visit with Mercy Thompson in Iron Kissed. "Mercy Thompson novels are some of the best serial fiction in urban fantasy," Becky says. "Patricia Briggs excels at character development and not rushing relationships or even growth on her people. Her characters are also good at staying in character."

Laurell K. Hamilton leaves Anita for Edward in Obsidian Butterfly. "For the most part, the story had enough twists and action to keep me going," Becky concludes. "However, this may well be the last Laurell K. Hamilton book I will read. She's gone over to the Dark Side, and not in a good, entertaining way. Her writing has gone from humor to erotica to hard erotica to sick violence."

Jennifer Donnelly's novel The Tea Rose "sprawls comfortably across approximately a decade of the life of Fiona Finnigan, one of the feistiest characters to take up residence between the covers of a book," Donna Scanlon reports. "Some readers may find the novel overstuffed, with a relatively predictable plot that doesn't say anything new. It probably could have withstood some editing, but on the other hand, there is little that is inessential to the story. Other readers, however, will find The Tea Rose to be just the ticket for a rainy afternoon, curled up on the couch with blanket and a mug of -- what else? -- good hot tea."

Lesley Thomas heads for Alaska with the Flight of the Goose. "One thing I look for in a novel is whether I can identify with one or more of the main characters, and possibly even like them," Chris McCallister says. "I did end up liking both Kayuqtuq and Leif, and I felt that I knew and understood them enough to make them interesting. That is the main reason I was able to stick it through to the end. That is not enough, though, to make this a good and recommendable book."

It was with a certain grim resolve, Tom Knapp says, "that I decided to plunge into yet another Bomb Queen collection from Jimmie Robinson and Image Comics to see what the anti-heroine of New Port City was up to this time. Once again, I was impressed with Robinson's overt cheesecake art and the clever ideas he put into play in a city ruled by fear and murder -- but once again he spoiled the brew with a sense of humor that just doesn't sit well in comics -- or, for that matter, any medium I can think of." Find out why in Tom's review of Bombshell.

The War Games saga begins with the beating of War Drums in Gotham City. "But, title and good intentions aside, this collection does little to build tension for the dramatic events to follow," Tom says. "The stories here aren't bad at all. ... But the book's connection to the forthcoming War Games is tenuous at best -- although one development, which you won't discover until you're a good ways through War Games, does lead directly into the next epic yarn."

Written by Roy Thomas, a Marvel scribe and editor for many years, Stan Lee's Amazing Marvel Universe "catalogues the major works of Lee at Marvel in an insightful and entertaining manner," Mark Allen says. "Making the book even more enticing is the digital playback device that is attached. Containing 68 voice tracks from Stan the Man himself, readers can gain special insight from the uber-imaginative creator."

The Oestara Anthology of Pagan Poetry express pagan imagery and thought, Paul de Bruijn says. "The results are wide ranging and different poems will speak to different people. ... The collection of poems is a mixed bag and, while it is a pleasant read as a whole, it is not a must-read, no matter how good some of the poems are."

After a highly successful series of graphic novels, Steve Niles took his vampires-in-Alaska concept to the big screen in 30 Days of Night. "Top marks go to the team that devised the look of this film. Shot largely in daylight and recomposed to appear like it's night, 30 Days makes great use of a visual palette dominated by black, white and shades of gray -- accented by splashes and sprays of vivid red," Tom Knapp says. "30 Days of Night is not the end-all of vampire cinema, but it is a refreshing change from the norm. Niles has mined this story's potential on several occasions for the printed page, and I wouldn't mind seeing Hollywood take another crack at it as well."

Jen Kopf unleashes her Happy Feet for the crowd. "Ah, finally -- a kids' movie in which the music doesn't drive me insane," she exults. "As unlikely as it sounds, Prince provides part of Happy Feet's soundtrack, and it's one of the factors that tips this extra-long movie into the category of 'kid favorite' and Oscar-winner for Best Animated Feature Film."

Lots more is on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

17 May 2008

The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.
- George Hyman Rickover

Damn it, it's raining again!

Delyth Jenkins "has created a work of resplendent beauty -- a collection that finds Jenkins' own compositions alongside some fine interpretations of traditional Welsh tunes" -- on Aros, Mike Wilson says. "From start to finish, this is a beautiful album, brimming with poise and emotion and providing the most pleasurable of listening experiences, time after time."

The Prodigals keep their Momentum going with "some of the most polite Celtic rock you can imagine," says Michael Scott Cain. "Everything is tasteful, calm and controlled; there are no explosions of energy, no feeling like the one you get from so many of the Celtic bands, that of a band is walking out on the edge, taking big risks and hoping they'll pay off. ... The problem with Momentum is that it never builds any."

Benjy Wertheimer and Michael Mandrell supply the Notes from Celtistan in "an imaginary country where Celtic music meets Indian classical music," Laurie Thayer explains. "Notes from Celtistan is mostly mellow, sometimes startling, but always interesting."

Erik Ask-Upmark takes a Scandinavian view of the harp on Himlens Polska. "The 13 harp solos -- most of them traditional dance tunes -- are spirited and distinctly Scandinavian, despite being played on a Celtic harp," says Jennifer Mo. "By choosing the clear, light notes of the Celtic harp over the earthier tones of the traditional nyckelharpa, Ask-Upmark produces a fresh, innovative sound that respects tradition without being bound by it."

Jeff Black strives for illumination with a Tin Lily. "Tin Lily is Black's fourth album and is made up of haunting lyrics, solid melodies, punchy vocals and non-formulaic chord progressions," Corinne Smith says.

Archie Roach takes a musical drive down Charcoal Lane with one song in particular that Dirk Logemann is sure will make you cry. "I have rarely heard such a deeply moving song," Dirk says. "This is deeply moving stuff that's full of hope despite the undertone of sorrow and loss."

Angel Band makes music With Roots & Wings. "Angel Band is not, as one might suppose, a revival group devoted to old hymns, spirituals and gospel songs. It doesn't even do traditional secular material, though folk music is an occasional inspiration," Jerome Clark says. "What the Angel Band needs is more robust, less anemic material or -- failing that -- a more inspired choice of covers. Country-pop in the right hands occasionally shows itself to be a not entirely witless or exhausted genre, but the Angels only remind me -- as I certainly do not need to be reminded -- of how listless it usually is."

Randy Thompson moves his music Further On on his third recording. "This is an exceptional album, deep, durable and built for repeated listening," Jerome says. "I will add that this is not mainstream Nashville country music. Maybe that's because Thompson lives in a tiny town in rural Virginia and insists on what he calls 'a real Virginia feel.' It's a nearly perfect integration of rock, country and -- most interestingly to me -- Appalachian folk music."

Sophie Milman "performs jazz standards and contemporary songs far beyond her young years" on her self-titled debut album, Sherrill Fulghum proclaims. "Sophie sings the standards as though she were born in the era and her contemporary songs sound as if they belong right alongside the classics."

Amy Banks is ready for jazz When the Sun Comes Out. "Accompanied by some fine musicians, she produced a competent jazz album that also includes some classic pop songs from the '70s," says Adolf Goriup. "The recipe is simple; piano, bass, drums, saxophone, vibraphones and Banks' wonderful voice. Combined, they make this CD a beautiful mixture of romantic songs and brilliant musicianship."

Magic Slim and his band, the Teardrops, offer up some genuine Chicago blues in The Essential Magic Slim. "If you haven't heard Magic Slim, you're not going to find a better introduction," says Michael Scott Cain. "You could quibble about some of the selections; there are tunes in Slim's repertoire I'd like to have seen on this CD, but none I'd leave off. In all, it's a great way to meet the man and his music."

Nathan Clark George and Mark Stoffel mark A Midwinter's Eve a little out of season this year. "It was weird to be reviewing this album as the sun began to heat up on an Irish spring, but it is a test of the quality of the music that I was as impressed by it as if I had started listening in deep December snow," Nicky Rossiter says. "This proves the sad fact that many people only dust off the festive songs for that limited period ... but why must we be deprived of them for 11 months each year? You don't restrict 'Summertime' to the sunny months, so why not 'Silent Night' in July? Go on be radical buy a Christmas album in summer."

Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola join forces on Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier & the Vampire. "If you love books and their construction, Baltimore is a joy to hold in your hands," Becky Kyle remarks. "Reading the story by Christopher Golden is like picking up a Poe. Elements in the narrative are so very familiar, with just the subtle twists that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up."

Ilona Andrews gets serious in Magic Burns. "If you're a strong fan of kickbutt urban fantasy heroines, you need to meet Kate," Becky enthuses. "Magic Bites was an impressive entry into the urban fantasy genre. Magic Burns establishes Andrews as an author who's going to keep honing her craft until she reaches the top of the charts."

Jeanne C. Stein invites us all to be The Watcher as The Anna Strong Chronicles unfold. "You'll keep reading with interest and perhaps a bit of confusion," Becky warns. "The Watchers has one serious deficit. Just too much goes on for a 291-page book. Stein could have produced a juicy thriller with just one of her villains and really done some superior character development, too. Still, I am looking forward to the next book in this series."

Rachel Caine unleashes a Firestorm in volume five of her Weather Warden series. "Though I did not think it possible, this volume is even more of a whirlwind than the others! I was turning pages in a frenzy to see what would happen next," Gloria Oliver says. "Everything happens in a short time in a very fast way (making up for giving us a little breathing space in book four)."

James L. Nelson concludes the Brethren of the Coast with The Pirate Round. "Set in 1706, The Pirate Round has a few plot threads that seem to go nowhere, as well as some plot developments that readers will never see coming," Tom Knapp says. "Nelson doesn't pull punches when it comes to the dangers of seafaring, much less piracy, in the early 18th century, and this gripping novel will keep you turning pages through the stunning, explosive climax and the coda that follows to wrap things up."

Dana Kamal Mills gives her readers Beirut in Shades of Grey. "Beirut in Shades of Grey is an insightful and sometimes terrifying glimpse into the life of one woman; it humbled this reader, while at the same time providing a gripping read," Cherise Everhard says. "There is no doubt Mills is a gifted storyteller."

Joshilyn Jackson takes on rural, small-town life in Between, Georgia. "Between, Georgia is definitely 'chicklit.' And yeah, I am a guy, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book," Wil Owen admits. "Jackson is an excellent writer when it comes to this type of fiction. She is equally impressive as a narrator."

Mark Allen takes a gander at two volumes of Hand of the Morningstar: Advent and Resurrection. "It had been a while since I'd read a comic series about a superhero team that I was really invested in as a reader," he says. "A series with amazing, progressive characterization (that is, characters who evolve), tons of action that doesn't act as a substitute for an interesting plot, and the overwhelming sense that something amazingly sinister is brewing just out of sight. In other words, an epic story."

A year-long mystery gets a new twist in Dark Victory. "Dark Victory by writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale continues the tradition of excellence begun in The Long Halloween," Tom Knapp says. "Batman this time around is darker, angrier, still reacting to his own failures during the Holiday murders."

A sequel to the Star Wars graphic novel Crimson Empire, Crimson Empire II: Council of Blood picks up shortly after the first book ended. "The problem is, the characters often seem to act completely unlike the people they were in the first book," Tom says. "While Crimson Empire dealt largely with the conflict between two of the late Emperor's elite guards -- one of whom remained loyal to the Emperor's memory, the other of whom strove for the Emperor's unclaimed power -- this book deals more with squabbles among the Empire's new ruling council and the machinations of yet another Hutt. ... I kept waiting to care, but it never clicked."

Coming up next week in this section, Batman's epic War Games and, yes, yet another look at the Bomb Queen! Can you bear the wait??

Ronnie Lee explores The Philosophy of Life: God, Wisdom & the World Psyche through poetry. "For a book that insists on the primacy of logic, The Philosophy of Life is more than a little illogical. It is awash in abstractions and, on the surface, at least, appears to accept declarations and repetitions as truth," says Michael Scott Cain. "Since the book develops as a series of statements of that sort, and since each is dependent on the ones that precede it, as you get deeper into the book, you get deeper into cascading abstractions and maybe just a touch of confusion. Frankly, I couldn't follow it."

Tom Knapp took his kids to see Iron Man despite his own misgivings about the armor-clad hero. "An avid comic-book reader, I still had grown weary of the Iron Man character years ago, and I had no desire to see ol' Shellhead get the big-screen treatment ... until I saw the trailer, and I cautiously added it to my summer viewing list. Now I've seen the movie, and I'm a fan all over again," he says. "Iron Man delivers a powerful punch that reminds me why comic books -- and comic-book movies -- can be so darned fun."

Jen Kopf approaches North Korean gymnastics with a contemplative state of mind. "A State of Mind manages to balance out the overriding presence of North Korea's government and its focus on communal effort to focus on the gifted Pak and Kim, two girls who giggle to karaoke, squabble with their parents about homework and go on field trips -- all while training hours upon hours a day for their performances in the Mass Games' whirl of patriotism," she says. "A State of Mind pushes aside Kim Jong-Il's curtain of secrecy just a bit, and I wish it had stayed open a little longer before falling again."

Lots more is on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

10 May 2008

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world
and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
- E.B. White

Happy Mother's Day, Mom!!

Matt and Shannon Heaton combine traditional tunes and lyrics with their own compositions on Blue Skies Above. "I have to confess that this CD did not impress me the first time I heard it. Same old, same old, I thought," says Laurie Thayer. "But repeated listenings have changed my mind. For one thing, it's not precisely the same old. This is a toe-tapping, upbeat, fun collection, just the sort of CD I would recommend if you're having a lousy day."

The Pyrates Royale get a double-down bid on Black Jack. "Whatever you're expecting given their origin as a ren faire act, they're extraordinary musicians, and in good pyrate fashion, they're sneaky about it," Laurie Thayer says. "I wish Maryland were closer; I'd love to see the Pyrates Royale in person. Black Jack is part bawdy, part gorgeous and, yes, all rollicking."

The bawdy songs don't even pretend to be subtle on The Bird in the Bush: Traditional Songs of Love & Lust, Tom Knapp says. "These simple, sparsely arranged recordings are utterly without artifice or pretense; they are boldly brazen, but never coarse. Rather, blunt puns and metaphors lay bare the true meaning of these songs. They show the plain-spoken delight that has made the saucier side of British folk music a treat for countless generations."

The Kennedys are sharing Better Dreams with their fans. "It's hard to imagine how anyone could dislike the Kennedys' music," Jerome Clark says. "It's not just the sound of the Kennedys, but it's also their brightness and energy, the sort of emotion to which only the most open-hearted artists can give voice. It's sincerity without sappiness, and they manage that even with the sort of lyric ... that could come across as self-indulgent, bubble-gum psychedelic, or new ageish, but charmingly fails on that score.

Work o' the Weavers fails to impress Jerome, despite the history of the Weavers that stands behind We're Still Here. "I suppose that for what it is, it's what it is -- which is to say all right, perhaps, to those who still respond happily to this sort of thing," he says. "If that's dim praise, well, none of this is much to my taste, and some of it ... is just plain terrible. Mawkish, too, to the point that maybe for a moment there, you'd almost think, peace, love and understanding are funny."

Vancouver guitarist Don Alder dabbles in Acoustic Matters to good effect. "Adler is no ordinary picker; he uses a technique known as finger-style picking," Sherrill Fulghum says. "Acoustic Matters is a collection of interesting and sometimes fun pieces showing off Adler's abilities."

The Chambers Brothers are remembered in the re-release of four early landmark recordings: People Get Ready, Now, Shout and Feelin' the Blues. "In all, these albums pretty much sum up the Chambers Brothers' apprentice period, pointing to all of the musical bases they would hit in a long career," says Michael Scott Cain. "If you only know them from their psychedelic period in the late '60s, then getting to know the band in all of its complexity will be a treat."

Chris Whitley and Jeff Lang have those Dislocation Blues. "I've heard a little of both Jeff Lang's and Chris Whitley's solo stuff, but this collaboration takes the chequered flag," Dirk Logemann says. "Together they create a raw, visceral and driving sound that remains warm and textured."

Jerome Clark eyes up a pair of recent bluegrass releases: Larry Stephenson's Thankful and Donna Ulisse's When I Look Back. "I can't claim to have heard all of Stephenson's albums, but I can state confidently that Thankful is the most perfectly realized to end up under my roof," Jerome says. "Ulisse's modern take on bluegrass contains some of the flavor of the contemporary Nashville mainstream, though she's dishing up something more nutritious."

Spencer Durham has Much More Than Words to his credit on this freshman bluegrass release. "For a mere 18 years on this planet -- at least this time 'round -- he appears to have amassed a myriad of experience, plus the talent to write it in lyrics and set it to music," Nicky Rossiter says. "His technique contains fragments of many genres, but all are very much taken in hand and made into his own unique sound."

Spyro Gyra is Wrapped in a Dream after 30 years of smooth jazz. "The Grammy-nominated Wrapped in a Dream is a collection of 12 tunes that, while slightly more toward progressive or fusion jazz than their usual, is still unmistakably Spyro Gyra," Sherrill Fulghum says. "Like the spiral form of the algae from which they take their name, band members weave their lines in and around each other musically to produce a sound that is distinctly unique."

Joe Jewell Quartet believes that Every Note Counts. "The Joe Jewell Quartet, made up of guitarist Jewell, drummer Mile Bennett, Reed Gratz on Fender Rhodes and Baba Elefante on bass, offers on this CD a nice set of very politely played tunes," remarks Michael Scott Cain. "For me, though, the CD, although always pleasant, never rises above the level of skillfully done light jazz. Like a fast food burger, it lacks bite and flavor."

Sharham and Hafez Nazeri evoke The Passion of Rumi. "There's no shortage of passion in this musical celebration of the Sufi poet Rumi, but passion doesn't always make for easy listening," notes Jennifer Mo. "Don't get me wrong: the nine tracks on The Passion of Rumi ... are eloquent blends of classical and modern Persian music boasting crisp musicianship and appropriately intense vocals for the transcendent subject matter. For those unfamiliar with Persian vocal stylings, however, Shahram Nazeri's throaty undulations may be as much of an acquired taste as Wagnerian opera."

Emma Bull explores new Territory with this fantasy novel set in Tombstone, Ariz., in the day when the Earps and Clantons held sway. "She's only produced a few books in her literary career, but I find her writing to be as finely honed as Damascus steel -- with a terrible beauty to match," says Becky Kyle. "There's a mystery woven tightly into this fantasy landscape. Characters are well written and the descriptions literally take you there -- to the point of tasting smoke and dirt when the fire first breaks out. The story's spin is one that's not commonly told -- and an interesting one. Territory is hard to put down, but I found myself doing that -- and re-reading earlier passages -- because I wanted to make this one last. This is one of the best fantasy novels I have read in a long time."

Simon R. Green ponders the Paths Not Taken in the fifth book of Nightside. "Usually, I can't put a Nightside book down," says Becky Kyle. "This time, I couldn't pick it back up."

Carrie Vaughn focuses her pen on a radio host in a world not quite our own. "In Kitty Goes to Washington, the second book in the Kitty Norville series, the existence of werewolves and vampires has become public knowledge," Becky explains. "What this volume lacks is the pop that makes you eagerly turn the pages. Vaughn introduces some interesting characters here, but the story doesn't really push you along like the first book did."

Monica Furlong continues her young-adult fantasy saga in Colman. "Alas, much of what made the first two books memorable -- the details of spinning and herblore, the relationship between girl and teacher, the understated magic within women's wisdom -- has been replaced by a straightforward plot and uninspired action sequences," says Jennifer Mo. "Magic is reduced to a plot device, and rather than relying upon their wisdom and good sense, characters have a tendency to instinctively sense the right thing to do. The reappearance of old, once-vanquished enemies is almost comically reminiscent of unplanned Hollywood sequels."

J.D. Robb (a.k.a. Nora Roberts) continues a long-running suspense series with Strangers In Death. "This book is definitely hard to put down and exceptionally entertaining," Cherise Everhard says. "I am wowed by this series. After so many books it seems it would be hard to delight and surprise her faithful readers, but J.D. Robb does so, continuously and flawlessly. Enjoy!"

William Lashner invokes A Killer's Kiss in this recent thriller. "Lashner's plot is fast-moving," says Michael Scott Cain. "He begins the book at a breakneck pace and then keeps amping up the action to move even more quickly."

The three selections in the graphic novels/trade collections department today are pretty diverse. Take a look!

Adam Warren's bodacious (but insecure) heroine is back in Empowered 3. "If you're reading this book solely for the cheesecake factor and bondage humor, you'll be thrilled with this new installment," Tom Knapp says. "But writer/artist Adam Warren has proven himself to be capable of more plot-driven action and character development than this -- poor li'l Emp deserves some growth."

Batman endures The Long Halloween in this epic tale of gangland slaughter. "There are a handful of iconic Batman stories, and The Long Halloween is counted proudly among them," Tom says. "This landmark tale written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Tim Sale captures a side of Gotham that no other story has accomplished."

Mark Allen somehow missed John Romita Jr. 30th Anniversary Special when it came out in 2006, but he's found it now. It is, he says, "one of those publications that gets fans of comics and comics history completely goofy and giddy. ... There are few more deserving of recognition, based on volume of work and important projects under their belt than John Jr."

That's it for this edition's look at the sequential arts. Tune in next week for more, including the sequel to The Long Halloween.

Beckah Tolley, Raven Duclos and Katie Boyd take us along on a Ghost Quest in New Hampshire. "Even experienced ghost hunters get scared. That's one of the unexpected truths we learn by reading this book," says Corinne H. Smith. "You can polish off this volume in the course of one afternoon, but beware! For at least a while afterward, you could find yourself looking over your shoulder and wondering if you're really alone."

And now for a bit of cinematic flair to round out the day....

Becky Kyle offers everyone a peek into Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. "I love first-run movies. No home theatre system can replace the smell of popcorn, the wall of video and sound of a real theatre -- but with the rising cost, I see films on matinee and I rarely ever see a film twice in the theatre," she says. "But if my companion had agreed to turn around and see Mr. Magorium again, I would have done so. I do plan on taking some friends to see this film -- a retread for me, but it'll be a treat to see their reactions as the plot unfolds."

While Becky has the floor and is on the subject of movies, she has a review of Eddie Vedder's movie soundtrack to Into the Wild. "Chris McCandless's life story demanded someone with a voice that's evocative, but spare. The instrumentation needed to be varied, but simple," she says. "The Into the Wild soundtrack fits the bill."

Lots more is on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)