20 December 2008 to 21 March 2009

21 March 2009

Professionally and personally, it's inappropriate to live your life trying to define it in terms of success or failure. If I had kids, I wouldn't want to raise them to think they had somehow failed. A different kind of vocabulary needs to apply to such things. Not to excuse mistakes, but to not bash yourself up for the rest of your life.
- Kenneth Branagh

Anyone else out there exhausted from a heavy rotation of St. Patrick's Month celebrating. We know we're pooped here ... and the gigs aren't over yet!!

Look for information on Hannah Garman right here. Thanks!

Now, read on, and support live music.

Tony McManus focuses on the guitar on The Maker's Mark. "The Maker's Mark is not an album that will produce a rash of No. 1 hits. In fact, the listenership may prove to be rather small -- and in many ways this is a great loss to music lovers," Nicky Rossiter says. "We all grow familiar with the sound of the guitar and in particular the riffs and bridges in popular and other songs. But here is an album of guitar instrumentals played on some of the finest instruments ever manufactured, and the sad fact is that it may be lost to general listeners because there are no vocals or readily familiar tunes to lure them in."

Ronan Tynan lacks his usual punch on Sing Me an Irish Song. "Ronan's choice for his favorite Irish songs is a mix of easily recognizable songs and a few I've never heard," Bill Knapp says. "Given my admiration for Ronan, I almost hate to write this, but I think he could have done somewhat better. By that I do not infer that his voice is lacking in any way; rather it is with the tempo. ... Maybe because the Ronan I've come to love so well sings with passion and power, it seems to me his latest effort is more mellow than I was expecting."

Tom Rush is back after a long hiatus with What I Know. "It has been 35 years since Tom Rush released a studio album. The last one was the unmemorable Ladies Love Outlaws, pretty much as ill-conceived as its title. ... Before that, however, Rush had done some of the most interesting albums of the 1960s folk revival," Jerome Clark says.

"Recorded in Nashville with Rush's old Boston folk-scene associate Jim Rooney producing, What I Know represents a welcome return to form. That magnificent baritone remains, the effects of age (he's in his late 60s) rarely, and then inconsequentially, apparent. Once more, Rush evinces both his superior interpretative skills and his exemplary taste in material, most of it from obscure, if worthy, writers."

Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams comes alive with The Great Unravel. "How do they fit that name on posters and marquees? Well, the important thing to remember here is to go beyond a band name that may cause you to dismiss them unheard," Nicky Rossiter says. "If you listen only to the opening track on The Great Unravel, you will be disabused of the idea that Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams is anything less than serious."

Johnny Williams takes his music on the road for the Last Day of Galax. "Bluegrass long-timer Johnny Williams is respected not just for his musicianship -- currently as a member of the Virginia-based Big Country Bluegrass -- but for his songwriting and activism in the genre," Jerome Clark says. "Last Day of Galax -- from the title of a Williams song celebrating the venerable fiddle festival in Virginia -- is a work of solid craftsmanship, never flashy but never less than assured. Williams' soulful vocals serve the material well, and the smart but minimalist instrumental accompaniment keeps them properly at the forefront."

We've slacked a bit in our coverage so far from Celtic Colours 2008 ... but there are still stories from this amazing festival in the pipeline. Here's Festival Club spotlight featuring Ashley MacIsaac. "His style really gets people moving and it was great to see and hear him play in this setting," Kaitlin Hahn reports.

Andrew Steinmetz deliberately blurs the line between memoir and fiction in Eva's Threepenny Theatre. "When he discovered that his aunt Eva had performed in Bertolt Brecht's plays in Germany before the rise of the Nazis sent her family on the road, he decided that here was a story worth telling," says Michael Scott Cain. "How much of this is fiction and how much is true, we can't really tell; suffice it to say that Eva has a striking eye for the telling detail as well as a tendency to understate, to relate almost everything in the same tone, so that no one event is more significant than the others.

"What's true and what's not true finally doesn't matter. What does is the story of human endurance."

Richard Ford has a few words to share about The Sportswriter. "Frank Bascombe is an asshole. He's a narcissistic nobody who writes about sports rather than plays them because he was never good enough to participate. He'll do anything to get out of a conversation with just about anyone -- including a man who may or may not have suicidal tendencies -- because halfway through he loses interest in whatever he's discussing and is ready to move on to the next thing," Eric Hughes says.

"If you find yourself put off by Frank, then don't attempt to even pick up The Sportswriter, because you'd be playing with the slimmest of chances of actually liking the thing. For the rest of you still with me, I guarantee you'll find a lot to appreciate (and contemplate) in Ford's novel, an excellent character study that really has a lot to say about the big picture, especially the concept of family, death and dying, misunderstandings, and so on."

Henry Melton gets otherworldly for young adults with Roswell or Bust!. "The plot is tight enough to keep the reader's interest intact 'til the characters solve their problem," Liana Metal says. "This is the second book I have read by Melton, and I would gladly read more by this author. It caters to the whole family."

The cast of Prey returns a decade later in Terror with the same creative team -- writer Doug Muench and artist Paul Gulacy -- at the helm. "The story is packed with murder and revenge, betrayal and psychological twists, not to mention a classic comic-book deathtrap. It's not groundbreaking Batman -- the story itself is a little old hat -- but it's entertaining all the same," Tom Knapp says. "Except for the mannequin. She's creepy."

Rita Cosby unearths into the sordid details in Blonde Ambition: The Untold Story Behind Anna Nicole Smith's Death. "Cosby pulls no punches in this slim volume, which is quick to point out inconsistencies and mysteries in the accounts of Anna Nicole's life and death," says Jessica Lux-Baumann. "Anna Nicole was clearly manipulated by a sea of sharks in life, and the feeding frenzy continues after her death."

Tom Knapp goes on a magical adventure with Coraline, a 3-D animated movie based on Neil Gaiman's classically creepy book. "Coraline, the movie, can be judged on two plains: how it compares to Gaiman's original story and how well it stands on its own," Tom says.

"It stands alone extremely well. Coraline is delightfully creepy, and Coraline is an appealing, endearing character who is easy to sympathize with and cheer for. ... Comparisons to Gaiman's original tale are a little trickier. Things have been cut and altered, obviously, but most of the changes can be explained by the differing needs of a book and a movie."

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have nearly 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,000 reviews!)

14 March 2009

We get used to all kinds of things. The sharp taste of alcohol, the bitter taste and caffeine shakes from coffee, the smoke and yellow teeth and coughing from cigarettes. We're really good at getting used to everything we have to suffer with in order to have a good time.
- Peter David

And again....

A reminder

We recently told you about 5-year-old Hannah Garman, a brave girl with inoperable cancer whose wish for Christmas cards this past holiday season drew an amazing global response. Her father has asked people to make donations in Hannah's name to buy toys for other children with cancer.

Click here for more details about Hannah's story, as well as options for making a donation. Thanks!

We now return you to our regularly scheduled reviews.

Bill Grogan's Goat is kicking up an Irish sound on this self-titled CD. "If the 13 cuts are overwhelmingly familiar ones, they're nonetheless welcome in these ears. 'Black Velvet Band,' 'Star of the Country Down,' 'Whiskey in the Jar' and their like can be done badly, but even delivered with minimal competence, their lyrics and melodies are so rich that they ordinarily stand on their own," Jerome Clark says. "BGG delivers them with rather more than merely passable skill."

Danny Schmidt sets his star to rising with Instead the Forest Rose to Sing. "Psychic powers need not be engaged to empower predictions that Danny Schmidt will soon be a major star on the folk end of the singer-songwriter spectrum," Jerome opines. "Instead the Forest Rose to Sing, Schmidt's debut on the dependably quality-conscious Red House label, showcases his rather stunning aptitude for creative wordplay and memorable melodies."

Hilary James transports her listeners to a Burning Sun. "When you hear Hilary James, you know you have heard Hilary James. Her voice is magically suited to the songs -- varied as they are -- that she chooses. With the wonderful backing on Burning Sun, you can sit back, relax and let the music flow over you," Nicky Rossiter says. "The magic of this album is that although the origins and mixes of inspiration span time and geography, Hilary James manages to produce a sound that will never jar. Her harmonious voice, perfect diction and the magical backing give the listener a fantastic audio experience."

Whitetop Mountain Band kicks back with a Loafer's Dream. "Karl and Gail Cooler's new Mountain Roads label continues its winning streak with this superb release by the Whitetop Mountain Band, from Grayson County in southwestern Virginia along the North Carolina border," Jerome says. "That region's rich traditions, Mountain Roads' raison d'etre, have gone a long way toward defining what we think of as mountain music. Loafer's Dream informs doubters and pessimists that Southern string-band music -- whose golden age is supposed to have been in the 1920s -- not only lives but flourishes."

Magdalena Reising throws open the Blue Cafe for a little jazz. "If you like female jazz singers backed with piano and wind instruments, then Magdalena Reising might entice you take a listen," Wil Owen says. "Magdalena's vocals are perfect for the type of jazz songs she croons."

Gil Brewer, an almost completely forgotten mystery and suspense writer from the 1950s, was for a brief time a commercial giant in the world of paperback originals, says Michael Scott Cain. "Now, Stark House, the California publisher specializing in reprinting old noir novels from the '40s and '50s, has brought out two of his books and five of his short stories in a single volume. The resulting book shows Brewer at his strongest and at his weakest." Take a look at Michael's review for more on A Devil for O'Shaugnessy and The Three Way Split.

Stephen King begins the sprawling, seven-book epic journey of Dark Tower with The Gunslinger. "Typical of King, the author very much conceived an idea and just ran with it. As he admits in the book's afterward, he finished The Gunslinger without an idea of where it's going, or whether it'll ever be completed. (Luckily for us, the series ended in 2004). With this frame of mind, King plays with his settings, characters and themes more than most other authors would," says Eric Hughes. "And that style pays off big time in The Gunslinger. In a book series that purposefully connects previous King works -- The Gunslinger's got direct references to Bag of Bones, The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon -- under one umbrella, it pays, as the author, to provide enough room to get a little creative."

John Paul Padilla has a field day with Johnny Big Ears, a "colorful, highly illustrated book" aimed at readers from ages 4 to 8. "This book is relentlessly optimistic, although there are touches of realism," Chris McCallister says. "The message is also a bit too simplistic for me: If you are loved, you can handle anything. There is tremendous power in that idea, especially if those who love a child also make it clear what they do and do not approve of. The loving should be unconditional, but the liking and the approving are always based on our actions; that distinction goes unmentioned here."

Green Arrow is a Straight Shooter in a tale involving large, troll-like monsters in Star City. "Of even more interest is Green Arrow's heavy-handed brand of street-level justice -- which isn't always the same thing as law -- as well as his own growing awareness of his personal relationship failings," Tom Knapp says. "Oliver Queen is one of those unmitigated lotharios who doesn't always make the right choices but, unlike the old days, he is developing a bit more self-awareness and, yes, even guilt for his romantic misdeeds. The reactions of his supporting cast are likewise very revealing; only folks who truly love him would get so very, very angry with him."

Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, is on the trail of some Mystic Artifacts. "Saga of the Medusa Mask was entertaining enough to bring me back for a second comic-book adventure with Lara Croft. Had Mystic Artifacts come first, I'm not sure I'd have returned to the series for another look," Tom says. "Don't get me wrong. Andy Park's art is still lush and gorgeous. And Dan Jurgens' storytelling isn't terrible, but he falls back on a few mismatched themes and hackneyed plot devices that make this outing with the Tomb Raider, well, less than fresh."

Mike Horn shares the details of his adventure in Conquering the Impossible: My 12,000-Mile Journey Around the Arctic Circle. "Horn has written a testament to the physical and mental strength of the human spirit when tested with impossible challenges. For 27 months, Horn circumnavigated the Arctic Circle in a 12,000-mile solo journey. Without the aid of motorized transportation, Horn traipsed through Greenland, Canada and Siberia. He faced challenges both natural and political, from fire and frostbite to a polar bear encounter to challenges with the Russian government," says Jessica Lux-Baumann. "I thoroughly enjoyed Horn's adventure tale, which was educational as well as adrenaline-pumping."

Jen Kopf slows herself down for a bit of quiet contemplation. "Deep in the French Alps, as you read this, Carthusian monks are going about the daily business of their monastery as they have since the 16th century. Within monastery walls, there is prayer and contemplation, and the work that is done is done in silence, to make that contemplative prayer possible," she says.

"After 16 years of waiting, filmmaker Philip Groning received permission to live with the monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery, and Die Grosse Stille (Into Great Silence) is the result."

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have nearly 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,000 reviews!)

7 March 2009

We're sorry, but a couple of unexpected issues have prevented the completion of this week's edition. Please check back in a week!

28 February 2009

Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years.
We grow old by deserting our ideals.
Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up our enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.
- Samuel Ullman

You didn't forget, did you?

A reminder

We recently told you about 5-year-old Hannah Garman, a brave girl with inoperable cancer whose wish for Christmas cards this past holiday season drew an amazing global response. Her father has asked people to make donations in Hannah's name to buy toys for other children with cancer.

Click here for more details about Hannah's story, as well as options for making a donation. Thanks!

It's the start of St. Patrick's Month ... so have a good one, and get out there to support live Irish music!

With The Full Set, the Occasionals "have Scotland and Scottish dance culture neatly packaged in a two-disc set," Nicky Rossiter says. "This 16-track CD by the Occasionals provides the music to let you have a real Scottish hooley any time you wish. Coupled with this, you get a DVD that offers instruction on how you can perform the dances plus an hour-long documentary on the excellent band. ... Seldom has a CD been so accurately titled in a number of ways. This is the full dance set for an evening, but it is also the complete set required to learn the dances and, if you are just too lazy to dance, you can sit back and enjoy as others perform them."

Jed Marum treads the Sands of Aberdeen for his latest recording. "With an eclectic mix of the music of Ireland and Scotland along with some new works, Jed Marum -- along with Hugh Morrison and Mason Brown -- has produced another must-have collection," Nicky says. "Marum must be one of the most prolific recording artists on the scene today. His highly individual and always welcome albums appear with startling regularity. This CD, Sands of Aberdeen, opens with the title track from his own pen, and as ever it tells a tale with brio and feeling."

John Nemeth hopes you will Love Me Tonight. "With his second release on Blind Pig Records, John Nemeth takes a strong step forward into the forefront of contemporary blues-rock," says Michael Scott Cain.

"Nemeth has labored for years in the trenches; he was the harp player for Frankie Lee and then served a stint as the vocalist for Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets for two years. After a couple of years as a solo artist and a couple of self-released CDs, he signed with Blind Pig, where he might be able to get the push he needs and deserves."

Dominique Lise, a Maine-based singer-songwriter, "goes from rockers to ballads" on 20 Years, her first CD. "Lise has a powerful enough voice to carry the faster ones, and she is backed by rock instruments including nifty electric guitar solos," Dave Howell says. "This is a promising, high-spirited debut."

Cameo Rowe takes us to the mythical Kingdom of Gaea in Defenders of the Realm: The Mystic Arts Tournament. "The book definitely has portions of it, specifically the tournament and the training for it, that have a video game feel to them. It probably could be spun into a video game fairly easily," Chris McCallister says. "Given this, much of its appeal might be to older teen and young-adult readers. However, if a teen or young adult has read quite a bit of fantasy fare, he or she will likely note that many stock fantasy elements are present: the supposedly-dead prince raised by a wise old man who grows into the hero; different realms within a kingdom with shifting alliances. It is the blending of magic and martial arts that gives this book some air of originality and distinctiveness."

Jonathan Baumbach is one of America's most overlooked novelists, according to Michael Scott Cain, who presents here a review of Baumbach's 11th novel, You (or the Invention of Memory).

"As you read You, at times you find yourself asking what Baumbach is doing," Michael says. "You might still have questions at the end of the book, but you will know that Baumbach has accomplished what every novelist, traditional or postmodern, sets out to do. He has entertained, amused and enlightened you. After reading You, you'll never look at your relationships or your own mind in quite the same way."

Jeff Lindsay's protagonist in Darkly Dreaming Dexter is, for a serial killer, a "surprisingly likeable character," Eric Hughes reports. "The snappy, quickly paced Darkly Dreaming Dexter is over before you know it. At just 288 pages, I had no trouble propping this one on my lap and polishing off its final chapter before the day was done. Jeff Lindsay's narrative reads like butter. (Don't ask me to elaborate on what that means.) What I mean to say is it's captivating enough to hold your interest through Dexter's final monologue. And this is coming from someone who already knew how it would end, given that I had already seen the first season of Showtime's Dexter, which is loosely based on Lindsay's novel."

The Outsiders, an on-again, off-again team of superheroes for DC Comics, is back for another round in Looking for Trouble. "The idea here is that this team won't wait for supervillains to strike, but will instead seek them out before they become a problem. The heroes also want to retain some emotional distance from one another, so they can function less as a family (one of the Titans' perennial failings) and more as a team," Tom Knapp says. "This isn't the greatest ensemble book on the market by any stretch, and the Justice League can rest easy that its place in the DC Universe is secure. It is enjoyable enough, however, to warrant another look."

This may well be one of the oddest items we've reviewed here at Rambles.NET. The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s, by Wendy McClure, collects "more than 200 Weight Watchers recipe cards, circa 1974," Jessica Lux-Baumann explains. "Sure, Weight Watchers provided some great base material, but this book is a terrific success because of McClure's narration, puns and critical commentary. I wouldn't have had nearly as much fun flipping through a box of recipe cards without the commentary."

Jen Kopf takes a look at that most famous of fonts, Helvetica. "You don't have to be a graphic-design geek to recognize what Helvetica is. You don't even have to know exactly what it is or how it came to be. The typeface, or style of print, is so ubiquitous worldwide that it's virtually impossible to go a day without stumbling across a sign or logo emblazoned in bold Helvetica," she says. "Helvetica, a documentary by Gary Hustwit, would seem at first glance to focus on a most narrow target audience -- people who are interested in design, and in how words and graphics meld together. But, surprisingly, this brief history of how a set of letters has come to conquer the world tosses in a little post-World War II history and some commentary from people who live their lives buried deep in the graphic arts, and it comes up with an entertaining look at something so ordinary we don't notice it -- yet something that fits so many needs that its use has crossed virtually every national boundary."

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have nearly 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,000 reviews!)

21 February 2009

There was never anything to be gained from observing what humans said to one another -- language was just there to hide their thoughts.
- Terry Pratchett

Just keeping it out there.

A reminder

We recently told you about 5-year-old Hannah Garman, a brave girl with inoperable cancer whose wish for Christmas cards this past holiday season drew an amazing global response. Her father has asked people to make donations in Hannah's name to buy toys for other children with cancer.

Click here for more details about Hannah's story, as well as options for making a donation. Thanks for helping!

We now return you to our regularly scheduled reviews.

Jean Redpath explores the music of Lady Nairne with her new recording, Will Ye No Come Back. "We often think only of Robert Burns when we consider the old songs of Scotland. Jean Redpath reminds us with this beautiful album that Robbie has a rival in Lady Nairne," Nicky Rossiter says. "Writing in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Lady Nairne captured the spirit of Scotland of that period. Her songs may not all be as familiar as those of Burns, but they are every bit as important and, more to the point of the listener, they are wonderful to hear."

The Paul McKenna Band falls Between Two Worlds with this collection of traditional and contemporary songs. "This album may not find complete favour with the purists because of the updating of some 'sacred' songs, but I feel that while they all may not transfer to the 21st century, enough of them will to perhaps entice and inspire a new audience to check them out," Nicky says. "If you pick your album purchases based on familiar tracks, beware of this CD but do not avoid it."

Mya Rose is Breaking Free with her third recording. "This singer, songwriter, poet and guitarist hails from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, she plays folk-rock with an occasional touch of the blues and spoken word, and she sounds like she just likes to jam a lot to see what happens," Wil Owen says.

"Breaking Free has 16 tracks. Take out about half-dozen of them and you would have a decent (if short) album. If you like spoken-word or off-key backup vocals, then you might disagree with my assessment. There is arguably some talent here, but sometimes when you jam, you come up with duds. It is too bad they were placed on the album as well."

Damon Fowler is stocking up the Sugar Shack with some classy blues guitar. "Florida's Damon Fowler has won Creative Loafing's award as the best guitarist in Florida. And the best slide guitarist, lap steel player and dobro player. Clearly, this guy knows his way around a string instrument. He also knows his way around musical styles," Michael Scott Cain reports from the front lines.

"Fowler's voice is serviceable. He sings as though he means what he's saying, and while he's never going to take Florida's best singer award, he's pretty much the best singer of his own material, which is pretty good. His tunes and lyrics use familiar blues ideas but generally with a original twist. Fowler clearly knows what he's doing and he knows how to make an album that rewards listening."

Dave McCullough could go Pharr with this jazzy production. "Pharr is a modest release, with a simple typed cover and just Dave McCullough alone on a seven-string guitar. But McCullough has no reason to be modest about his playing," Dave Howell says. "This is classic jazz guitar, the type of thing that would be best suited as restful background music if it wasn't so good. McCullough alternates chords and strumming with fast and clean single-note runs, intermittently adding bass notes."

Matt Browne is convinced that The Future Happens Twice. "This is a huge book, the first of a trilogy, at 720 pages. It tells the story of the first attempt for humans to travel to another solar system and is set in the United States in the middle of the 21st century," Chris McCallister says.

"While the book is large and took me quite a while to read, I never lost interest. There is probably more descriptive detail and step-by-step detail than is optimum, but I would rather have that than a book with two-dimensional characters or sparse settings. To the layman, most of the science is pretty reasonable. ... As to the one science where I am not a layman, psychology, the book handles that adequately, including both the Earth-bound parts and shipboard behavior. It does take a backseat to linguistics, astronomy, astronautics and engineering, but it was not overlooked, either."

Stephen Clarkson dispenses the Patriot's Reward. "This is historical fiction at its best. Author Stephen Clarkson writes in a style that brings the old dusty bones of history to life," Nicky Rossiter says.

"Those who viewed and enjoyed the television series John Adams would do well to read this book to find out the thoughts, dreams and aspirations of the 'ordinary people' of that era. Opening with the arrival of a slave ship and explaining, without being pedantic or boring, the misgivings of the whites and the humiliation of the slaves, it sets the scene for a tale of how one man, renamed Will by his owners, set about improving his situation and growing to understand the new world he was cast into. His education and growing awareness parallels the disputes with Britain and the subsequent revolution."

Richard Russo provides the Straight Man for this tale. "By now, I have read a couple of novels by Richard Russo, a favorite author of mine in recent times. Whether it's Empire Falls or Bridge of Sighs, the books I'm familiar with present similar plot devices that let the reader know they are for sure reading a Russo," Eric Hughes says. "Granted this one is not my favorite Russo -- Straight Man actually ranks lower than both of my previous outings with the author -- the work is still a considerable achievement and one I'd probably recommend to others, and certainly to people already familiar with Russo's stories."

This week's sole graphic novel review actually examines of set of four collections that fit together, albeit not as neatly as their creators might have hoped.

The Seven Soldiers of Victory, a hefty series written by Grant Morrison, doesn't inspire much excitement, Tom Knapp reluctantly reports.

"I like the bits with Zatanna ... but the rest of this cast floundered, and the story -- despite Morrison's demonstrable skill as a plotter in the past -- never really comes into focus. It feels like it's trying to hard to be another 'big event' in DC's continuity, but the foundation isn't there and the payoff is weak," he says.

"This one never managed to engage my interest, although I doggedly worked my way through all four volumes. I've heard some people say Seven Soldiers of Victory is a modern classic that requires its readers to work really hard to understand its myriad layers and levels, but nothing about it inspires me to want to put that much effort into the experience."

Alexandra Tesluk pens a tribute to her father's memory in The Ashes of Innocence. "The book is a fine memoir that will move and touch the readers' hearts," says Liana Metal. "The story is written in a clear style that it is easy to read, and the characters are well drawn and described. It is a moving story that caters to women and men alike, and all those who have lost hope sometime in their lives."

Scott Bowen misses the heart with The Vampire Survival Guide. "Max Brooks really had a good idea when he wrote The Zombie Survival Guide, which first saw the light of day in 2003. In perfectly clipped, dry tones, Brooks explained the best ways to prepare for and survive a zombie uprising. The book is funny because Brooks never tries to be funny. He takes himself perfectly seriously throughout," Tom Knapp says. "Now, Scott Bowen has tried to repeat Brooks' formula with The Vampire Survival Guide. Unfortunately, Bowen tries to be funny, and isn't."

For some people, Jen Kopf says, "waking up on the day after Valentine's Day is kind of like waking up with holiday backwash. After all, if we're not showing our appreciation and love on, say, June 14 or Nov. 14, what's the point of showing it on Feb. 14?" Where is she going with this line of reasoning, you ask? "I was put in mind of that sentiment this week by Kinamand, a tiny Danish movie about a passive, lonely plumber and a young Chinese woman who needs to marry so she can stay in Denmark. ... Kinamand's ultimate message -- when it comes to love, don't waste time -- is a good lesson to tide us over the next 300-odd days until Valentine's Day rolls around once more."

Tom Knapp feels safer knowing Paul Blart, Mall Cop is on the prowl. "It's a fun movie. Rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it's still amusing and entertaining," he says. "It lacks the ubiquitous profanity and sexual situations that would make it inappropriate for children, and it isn't laced with the fart jokes that seem to be required in most kid films these days. It's a good time, overall, and I'm glad I got to spend it with my daughter."

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have nearly 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,000 reviews!)

14 February 2009

I envy the music lovers hear.
I see them walking hand in hand, standing close to each other in a queue at a theater or subway station, heads touching while they sit on a park bench, and I ache to hear the song that plays between them: The stirring chords of romance's first bloom, the stately airs that whisper between a couple long in love. You can see it in the way they look at each other, the shared glances, the touch of a hand on an elbow, the smile that can only be so sweet for the one you love. You can almost hear it, if you listen close. Almost, but not quite, because the music belongs to them and all you can have of it is a vague echo....
- Charles de Lint

For Hannah's sake, and in Hannah's name....

A reminder

Last week, we told you about 5-year-old Hannah Garman, a brave girl with inoperable cancer whose wish for Christmas cards this past holiday season drew an amazing global response. Her father has now asked people to make donations in Hannah's name to buy toys for other children with cancer.

Visit this page to make a donation in Hannah's name. You'll find further details about Hannah's inspirational story, as well as easy PayPal or snail-mail options for donating. And thanks again for lending a helping hand to children in need.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled reviews.

Bodega is a young Irish band that passes its music Under the Counter. "The band will capture your pulse and set it racing," Nicky Rossiter says. "This album shows a wonderful breadth of musical talent in a young group and augers very well for the future of great music."

Jorma Kaukonen lays down 13 tracks of originals and covers from favorite blues, country and folk musicians on River of Time. "A professional guitarist all of his adult life (stretching all the way back to his days as a founding member of San Francisco's Jefferson Airplane), Kaukonen is a consummate pro with a rich finger-picking style. His easygoing, front-porch-intimate vocals carry the songs, broadly albeit not exclusively themed around life, death and enduring values, prominent among the last family and friends," Jerome Clark says. "Kaukonen's command of a variety of roots genres, along with his ability to reassemble them into a personal synthesis, shines through always."

Dave Patten is ready to Fly Away with his second CD release. "This singer/songwriter tends to sing a lot from his throat, but after hearing this CD, you realize there is some range when this baritone chooses to use it," Wil Owen says. "Even without his voice, Dave's guitar playing is notable. Some of the acoustic guitar solos on the CD are the hooks that will make you the hit the repeat button to hear certain tracks again and again."

Jan Seiden puts the Native American flute through its paces on Memory of Time. "The Native American flute can only play a certain number of notes, so a solo album using the instrument would tend to be limited. On these 12 tracks, however, Jan Seiden comes up with a surprising variety of sounds," Dave Howell says. "As with all such CDs, the overall feeling is mellow and contemplative. But with all her different varieties of instruments, the moods vary and live up to her descriptions of each track."

It's no secret that Tom Knapp loves the McDades -- a Canadian band consisting of Shannon Johnson, Solon and Jeremiah McDade, Simon Marion and Bucky Wheaton -- and Tom shares the love in this performance review from Harrisburg. "It's clear that this is a band that truly enjoys its work," he writes. "When you take a family steeped in jazz as much as Irish traditions, old-time and Canadian folk, you get quite the mix of music. Throw in a strong French-Canadian flair -- the band, with the exception of Edmonton resident Shannon, lives in Montreal -- and you've got an energetic mix that is intoxicatingly unique. And that doesn't even take into account the various world music influences they've added to their sound, such as Shannon's gypsy fiddling and Jeremiah's artistic brand of Tuvan throat-singing."

Jodi Picoult offers food for thought in My Sister's Keeper. "Too bad, however, that its main storyline is oftentimes smothered by a surplus of useless dribble, thus bogging down any momentum the book has going for it at the time," frets Eric Hughes. "Sure, I'll still recommend this one to others. It's just part of me feels like the book could have turned out even better than it did."

Thomas Glavinic blends elements of science fiction, horror and fantasy in Night Work. "The premise of this book is very interesting," Chris McCallister says.

"On the other hand, this story -- which starts off with a scenario that would be a nightmare for almost any real person -- ends up being a very long, slow, overly-detailed, somewhat repetitive nightmare for the reader. As one would expect, this is not a happy story, but the depressed tone really beats on the reader as the tale winds on to what is not an unpredictable ending."

Kathryn Cushman taps into intense feelings of grief and anger in A Promise to Remember, in which two mothers must come to grips with the loss of their sons. "I have to say that this book was a heart-thumper. The more I read, the more twisted my emotions became. Both families suffered, but apparently not enough for the other," Renee Harmon says.

"It's a highly sensitive topic that some of us may regrettably face one day, and Kathryn Cushman placed the consequences of it right in our laps. She took the anguish, the pain, the suffering and the heartache, then crafted it into a resolve that could be a debatable issue indefinitely."

The notorious Jack of Fables takes a trip through Americana in his search of fortune and glory. "Although his ultimate destination is a lost city of gold, it's the route he takes to get there -- beginning with the Great Train, and making stops in archetypal cities such as Steamboat, Gangland, Antebellum and Big City -- that provides the zing to this tale," Tom Knapp says.

"Jack of Fables is still not up to a par with the bedrock Fables series, but it does seem to be hitting its stride and becoming better as it rolls along. It's hard not to want to see what Jack will do next -- for the same reason it's impossible to look away from a train wreck."

Turning his attention to the jungle, Tom is disappointed in Shanna the She-Devil's return in Survival of the Fittest.

"The success of Frank Cho's Shanna the She-Devil miniseries made a sequel inevitable. Unfortunately for Marvel Comics -- and its readers -- Cho either wasn't available for or interested in doing another one at this time. And this Shanna, written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and drawn by Khari Evans, is a pale pretender to the loincloth," he says.

"Sure, you've got dinosaurs, Nazi cavemen, pirates, drug-dealers and coconut bombs, not to mention Shanna running around the place in a set of skins so skimpy even Paris Hilton might blush. (On second thought, no.) But the level of action and violence is, if you'll pardon the pun, overkill."

Wes Oleszewski has innumerable stories to tell of the Great Lakes in Ghost Ships, Gales & Forgotten Tales. "Far more than the Edmund Fitzgerald, made famous in song, there are countless wrecks dotting the bottom of those treacherous lakes," Tom Knapp says.

"Oleszewski's narrative is both factual, filled with meticulous details of the ships, crews, cargoes and courses that any nautical buff will enjoy knowing, and thrilling, descriptive enough to make readers feel the weather battering above them."

Dorothy Burtz Fiedel tries to find a few ghosts to share in Haunted Lancaster County Pennsylvania. "Although Fiedel boasts of receiving a large number of local ghost stories in response to her call for submissions, this slim volume (only 77 pages, including acknowledgements, footnotes and an "about the author" blurb) is padded with several non-ghosty yarns, including Pennsylvania's one witch trial (which didn't take place in Lancaster County) and a possible UFO sighting," Tom says.

"What's here, however, is presented in a lively, casual narrative that convinces readers that Fiedel enjoyed her subject -- and probably wished she had more exciting stories to share, too."

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have nearly 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,000 reviews!)

7 February 2009

Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can't,
and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.
- Robert Frost

Folks, can you spare a dime?

A message from Tom Knapp

When I'm not editing Rambles.NET, I spend much of my time writing for the local daily newspaper here in Lancaster, PA. In December, I wrote a story about 4-year-old Hannah Garman, an adorable girl from Lititz, who has glioblastoma multiforme. That's an aggressive brain tumor in her cerebellum, and the prognosis isn't good. For Christmas, Hannah had only one wish: lots and lots and lots of Christmas cards.

I'm pleased to say my story on Hannah spread, and at last count Hannah has received more than 160,000 cards -- and they're still coming. She and her family have also received money to help with their bills and gifts to brighten Hannah's remaining days.

Hannah just recently turned 5, and I did a follow-up interview with Hannah's father, Darin. He said he worries about all of the other children who have serious illnesses who weren't fortunate enough to get the kind of attention that Hannah did. "We have enough," Darin told me. "We've been blessed. But there are others out there who could benefit from people's generosity." Instead of running a campaign to raise money or buy toys for Hannah, he suggested, people should run one to benefit the children at a local hospital. They could do it all over the world, in Hannah's name. He couldn't think of a better way to honor her spirit and bravery.

So that's what my wife and I are doing.

We're asking anyone who has been touched by Hannah's story to make a contribution; to make it easy, we've set up a page with links to the stories about Hannah, as well as a link to Darin's daily journal providing updates on her condition. We've also provided a mailing address and a PayPal link for anyone who wants to donate to this cause. Whatever money comes in will be used to make a bulk purchase of stuffed animals and toys, which will be donated in Hannah's name to the children's cancer ward at Hershey Medical Center, where Hannah has received much of her treatment. If enough is raised, we'll split the donations between Hershey and another local hospital.

You can find it all right here.

Thanks for your support and generosity in Hannah's name. We now return you to our regularly scheduled reviews.

Maria Misgeld, Olaf Misgeld and Olle Lindvall give a taste of Sweden on Margits Sanger. "It is too bad that most English listeners will not know what the songs are about, since this is a pretty good CD. Maria Misgeld has a clear, trained voice that is direct and not overly mannered. Olaf Misgeld on violin and viola and Olle Lindvall on guitar add sympathetic and warm accompaniment that at times sounds a bit classical. It is spare but effective," Dave Howell says. "There is a bit of a mysterious air to much of the music and it is often melancholy, features that are not uncommon in Norwegian folk music. Even if you do not understand the words, you can appreciate the ethereal nature of the 16 songs presented here."

Kate Long and Robin Kessinger preserve their music on What We Do. "What We Do is exactly what it says: what they -- Kate Long and Robin Kessinger -- do in concert, in this instance at a county arts center in Elkins, West Virginia. They sing Appalachian folk songs and Long's in-the-tradition originals," Jerome Clark says.

"Long, a unique vocalist, boasts a lilting alto that, while not calling up the hard nasal tones of mountain performance, manages to sound authentic enough in its own way. It is a splendid instrument that will not be mistaken for anybody else's," Jerome adds. "An award-winning flat-picker who is also an effective singer, ... Kessinger hails from a family well known to devotees of mountain music."

Jamison Priest has a few things to sing about the Dreams I'll Never Know. "The inclusion of a long (more than 20 minutes) radio interview at the end of Dreams I'll Never Know fits in with the whole and adds more to the package as you get up close and personal with the members of Jamison Priest," says Paul de Bruijn. "The songs here are connected to each other by shared themes, but that doesn't mean each track isn't complete on its own."

Erin Sax Seymour is making a change in her life. "If I told you about a young lady who traveled the world as a documentary filmmaker and then somehow made the leap to country singing/songwriting while based in New York City, would you give her debut CD, Good Girl, a listen?" Wil Owen asks.

"Erin Sax Seymour did just that back in 2007. Despite her exposure to various cultures and ultimately settling in the Northeast, she sounds like she has spent her entire life in the South," he explains. "Granted, Good Girl is a very short CD, clocking in at just under 29 minutes. But there is not a bad track in the lot. If the lyrics don't get your attention, I'm sure the music will."

Krista Detor takes us back to early winter for yet another Christmas album -- but one that "isn't trapped in the familiar, doesn't simply repeat the standard done-to-death carols and reassure us that this holiday season will be just like the others," says Michael Scott Cain. "No, Detor -- an adventurous musician -- offers us a group of songs, mostly self-composed, that celebrate the season but still offer something musically and lyrically. Her material is based on tradition but has a newness to it, a freshness that is attractive and unique." For more information, forget that it's February and take a look at The Silver Wood: Wintersongs.

Anne Tenaglia has a lot to say about the Great Big Sea concert in South Orange, New Jersey. "I've been to many a Great Big Sea concert since my first in 1998. I can honestly say that, after 15 years, the band still has some surprises in store for its audience," she says. "The band has grown both musically and performance-wise and nothing has been left by the wayside. Even with the new rock 'n' roll material and changes in personnel, Great Big Sea did what they have been doing for the past 15 years -- left the audience breathless and wanting more!"

David Stinebeck and Scannell Gill take a narrative view of a historical figure in A Civil General, which relates the story of General George Henry Thomas, perhaps the greatest officer in the Union Army during the Civil War.

"Not only will this book refresh your memory of just who General Thomas was (assuming you ever knew), but you might just get a little more insight into what the War Between the States was like," Wil Owen says. "This novel may change your opinion about some of the more well-known personalities from this time period. Perhaps some are not quite as great as history books from school would like us to believe."

Larry Doyle gets a rousing endorsement from reviewer Eric Hughes. "If I were ever to be locked in a windowless room without food, heat or air conditioning, and were forced to name, while held at gunpoint, one book that is supposedly the most silly, stupid and not-to-be-forgotten, brain-dead book I had ever read in my lifetime -- I'm knocking on wood as I type -- I'd surely choose Larry Doyle's I Love You, Beth Cooper," he says.

"Doyle's tale is actually quite funny, especially in what his rather flat, one-dimensional characters say to one another. I found myself laughing out loud, though not uncontrollably, quite a few times. And that's really I Love You, Beth Cooper's sole purpose anyway. Coming from a writer of The Simpsons, you really can't expect any more than that."

Anita Bunkley "has hit us up with yet another brilliant, well-written novel" in Between Goodbyes, Renee Harmon says. "I was immediately drawn into the story, marveled by the selfless sacrifice of a mother hell-bent on making sure that her children have a fair chance at life," Renee notes. "Between Goodbyes is packed with a tremendous number of twists as the story unfolds that I guarantee you won't see coming. I highly recommend this book, which should be destined for the bestsellers list. And I am already looking forward to Anita's next project."

The Northlanders series gets off to a bloody start with Sven the Returned. "Set in 980 A.D., it is rough-edged and brutal; the winter cold bites as keenly as the Viking swords, and the lives of the impoverished villagers are desperate and harsh. More interesting than Sven's lone campaign against his uncle's forces -- and believe me, there is plenty of swordplay packed in these pages -- is Sven's gradual transformation over the course of this tale. I'll let you find out for yourself where it leads, but it's probably not where you expect it to go," Tom Knapp says. "There are weaknesses here -- anachronistic dialogue and an unsteady sense of the progression of time among them -- but overall this is a grim, realistic-seeming glimpse into the past that carries a punch."

Marcus LiBrizzi brings a genuine air of mystery to Dark Woods, Chill Waters.

"This slim volume ... collects tales from Down East Maine, a sparsely populated and largely undeveloped region that is, to hear LiBrizzi tell it, hopping with ghosts, demons and unexplained phenomena," Tom Knapp says.

"I usually include some hints of what you'll find in a book in my reviews, but this time I'd prefer to let you discover it all on your own. I don't want to risk giving away any clues that might reduce the impact of LiBrizzi's narrative, which encompasses everything from ghostly hitchhikers and sea captains to demonic spirits and a cursed waterfall. But let me assure you, if you are prone to being spooked anyway, don't even consider reading this when you're alone in the house at night. The stories are legitimately spine-tingling, and you will find yourself starting at every creak or shadow."

Miles O'Dometer has no fear of flying with Snakes on a Plane. "Snakes on a Plane is about snakes on a plane -- pheromone-fueled snakes, that is -- hundreds of them, all headed for passengers with fangs aglow. And golly-gosh-gee-whiz if these snakes don't look like snakes, sound like snakes, slither like snakes and strike like snakes, though to be honest, it does seem they have an extraordinary talent for hitting passengers right in their erogenous zones," Miles says. "Many reptile experts have come forward to note that snakes on a plane would never act like Snakes on a Plane. Of course they wouldn't. But most people would. And that's the fun of watching Snakes on a Plane."

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have nearly 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,000 reviews!)

31 January 2009

This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in
unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.
- Theodore Roosevelt

Tell me truthfully, don't things seem better already?

Ronan Tynan and pianist William Lewis join forces on Ronan & Billy Live. "The talents of Ronan and Billy complement each other," Bill Knapp says. "The combination of Ronan's powerful voice and Billy's gentle touch on the piano is mesmerizing. The obvious rapport between the pair lends itself to a performance that is both warm and humorous." Of course, the fact that the pair records Bill's all-time favorite Irish song doesn't hurt. Can you guess what it is?

The Barra MacNeils take a look back at a long and satisfying career in music in this 20th Anniversary Collection. "Six siblings of almost preternatural skill on all manner of Celtic instruments, with strong, beautiful voices that blend as only sibling voices can, the MacNeils present an award-winning breadth of music, both original and traditional, that is unmatched elsewhere within Celtic music," says David Connor. "This is a virtually flawless collection by master musicians at the height of their craft. ... If you are a newcomer to this remarkable group, this is the album to pick up."

Gregory Grene gets things grooving on the Flipsides. "The abiding memory of this album is the humour as well as the professionalism that Grene brings to the songs," Nicky Rossiter says. "Flipsides is an album to hear."

Andy McKee throws wide The Gates of Gnomeria. "On this acoustic guitar CD by Andy McKee, the fantasy cover and title track refer to McKee's love of Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. The title of one of the tunes, 'All Laid Back & Stuff,' is more descriptive of the music," Dave Howell says. "McKee uses a few effects, but nothing that takes away from the restful feel, or veers the CD away from a folk sound and toward new age. McKee does not seem to show off his fingerpicking prowess until the fourth cut, then on various tracks he combines bass and lead parts and plays some incredible harmonics. That's an advantage, giving a relaxed flow to the whole CD."

Ryan Delmore lets his Christian folk-rocker side shine on The Spirit, the Water, & the Blood,. "His sincerity is palpable and irrefutable; if it were otherwise, he'd be singing secular lyrics to these rich tunes and garnering flattering notices in non-faith circles," Jerome Clark says. "Nothing political, right or left, is happening in Delmore's songs. They're all devotional, some of them with the potential, I suspect, to move even the coldest unbeliever's heart an inch or two."

Rebecca Katz is Spendin' On Today with this solid -- but short -- debut release. "Spendin' On Today is simply a girl and her guitar. The folk songs found here are bare bones without extra instrumentation," Wil Owen says. "Rebecca has a pretty voice that does not need to hide behind instruments like some artists do. The melodies she plays lend a special air to Rebecca's work."

Paul de Bruijn spent some quality time with Great Big Sea during a November show in Winnipeg. Go on and read about the show, which apparently lacked only sufficient room to dance. "Great Big Sea performed with the energy one expects from them, bantered some between the songs and encouraged (not that we needed it) audience participation all night long," Paul says.

Anne K. Edwards is The Last to Fall in a world that's in turmoil, with no one to trust. "Anne K. Edwards has penned an apocalyptic tale that is frighteningly plausible. Tension and cliff-hanger chapter endings keep one turning the pages and hoping for the survival of sympathetic characters like Jeanne and Toby," John Lindermuth says. "Despite the odds, thanks to Edwards' skillful handling of the complex plot, the novel ends on a confident note and hope for the future. Readers in search of a riveting tale need search no further."

D. Barkley Briggs has a lot to offer in Legends of Karac Tor: The Book of Names. "What do you get if you mix the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis with Charles de Lint and his blending of cultures and frequent use of Celtic lore? Maybe this book by D. Barkley Briggs," Chris McCallister says. "Besides the character development and setting descriptions, Briggs does a very good job at world-building. ... But what really stands out in this book is the almost-poetic quality of the prose and the wonderful descriptions of how the characters perceive things."

Kurt L. Kamm lights a literary fire with One Foot in the Black: A Wildland Firefighter's Story. "His book is an account of a firefighter's life story that unfolds in the childhood years of the main character, Greg, who suffers abuse by his violent father, who also is a firefighter. The whole story revolves around this traumatic experience of Greg, who consequently becomes a firefighter himself," Liana Metal says. "The story involves social issues that assist in shaping the hero's behavior and personality and shed light into the issue of domestic violence. Despite the abusive family surroundings, Greg manages to live and find the courage to start a new life. The author makes his hero brave enough to go on with his life and seek the love and happiness he was deprived of during his early years at home."

Tom Knapp pays another visit to the superhero community of Tranquility in Welcome to Tranquility, Vol. 2. "It still soars. But Welcome to Tranquility #2 doesn't hit the same heights as the first book in the series," he says. "Perhaps it's because there are zombies and demons, and Welcome to Tranquility didn't really seem like a zombies and demons kind of book. ... This time around, an ancient evil -- if not the devil, then something pretty close -- has decided to take over Tranquility and kill all of its inhabitants ... out of spite, I guess. And everyone buried thereabouts is coming back from the dead to help him do it."

C.J. Taylor retells a popular tale in The Secret of the White Buffalo: An Oglala Legend. "This one tells how the sacred White Buffalo Woman brought the peace pipe to the Oglala Sioux. It is a fine retelling of this legend in a way that children can easily understand," Karen Elkins said. "It is a fascinating story told by one of the best children's storytellers in the industry. It carries a strong message for peace that we all should heed."

David Nuffer has some thoughts to share about Ernest Hemingway in The Best Friend I Ever Had. "There are those writers who have become icons. And few have gained that status to match Ernest Hemingway," John Lindermuth says. "Probably more words have been written about Hemingway than about any other author, with the possible exception of Shakespeare. David Nuffer estimates in the preface of this book that roughly 2,000 words per hour have been written about Hemingway for every hour of his life. ... That amounts to a lot of words, and one wonders what more could be found to say about him now nearly 48 years after his death. This slim little volume offers comments and memories from people who intimately knew the writer and shared them with Nuffer, an ardent fan since 1958."

Miles O'Dometer spends a little quality time with Michael Clayton, a film by writer/director Tony Gilroy.

"And good stuff it is -- not just the acting and the editing, but the shooting and the scripting as well. Clayton looks as dark as the dramatic material it's made of. New York at night can be an eerie place, and Gilroy makes the most of it," Miles says. "But even more impressive is the script. In a film where tension and suspense mean everything, Gilroy lets his characters speak, sometimes at surprising length, and reveal things about themselves or the world they live or struggle to keep living in."

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have nearly 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,000 reviews!)

28 January 2009

John Updike's death on Tuesday is a great loss to modern literature. The prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning author had a singular way with a narrative; we remember him here with a look back at this talk by the author in 1996.

24 January 2009

We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.
Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine,
drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man,
a charter expanded by the blood of generations.
Those ideals still light the world,
and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.
- Barack Obama

It's a whole new ball game.

Bob Gibson's rocky path through music is summed up in The Bob Gibson Legacy Edition, which includes a selection of glossy reissues, and The Living Legend Years, both of which get a careful examination by writer Michael Scott Cain. "These records, long missing, are finally here again and that is cause for celebration," Michael says. "Producer Meridian Green has done a fine job with the reissues -- the packaging is beautiful, the sound crisp and balanced. Examining the discs and listening to them shows you that this was a labor of love and the effort has paid off. You can sample the project by ordering the single disc Bob Gibson: The Living Legend Years, which offers a range of music from the four CDs, along with three new songs, one of which is another Gibson and Camp duet. You might as well go ahead and buy the package, though, because after you hear the sampler, you're going to want it."

Alan Hull's classic Phantoms is back on the shelves. "Hull was a co-founder of Lindisfarne, and after the initial spilt in 1973 he performed solo and with other groups. In 1979 he released Phantoms, but it has long been out of circulation -- until now," Nicky Rossiter says. "Listen here for a slice of the best of those folk sounds of the late 1970s."

Sandor Szabo and Kevin Kastning take Parallel Crossings for this outing of jazz duets. "These ambient duets are difficult to classify," Dave Howell says. "They have an ethereal, avant-garde feel. ... Sometimes there is a sense of foreboding, since you cannot pin down where the music is coming from, or where it is going. On the other hand, it is sometimes soothing, since Szabo and Kastning perfectly complement each other, and the playing is always on an even keel. There are also moments of otherworldly beauty on this CD that lasts nearly an hour."

Steve Dooks offers up a selection of Cocktails, Heartaches, & Cigars for the jazz fan. "A martini and cigar would be a good partner to these 10 songs," Dave remarks. "Some of them are swinging, with brass and saxes, while others have a wistful Dooks and his piano backed only by bass and drums. ... Dooks is more competent that fantastic on his vocals and keyboard work, but that makes him more accessible. He knows just how much to play in front of his excellent backup musicians. His style is based in a retro tradition, but it is brought up to date with new lyrics and excellent production. There may be heartaches in the words, but the music is fun to hear."

Guy Davis is looking for a Sweetheart Like You. "In this entertaining follow-up to the widely praised Skunkmello (which I reviewed here on 10 June 2006), Guy Davis collaborates again with producer/guitarist John Platania to offer up a modern -- though not too modern -- take on traditional and trad-inflected African-American music," Jerome Clark says. "Davis's immersion in the older, rural, pre-blues musical traditions of the African-American South informs just about everything he does. It's a great part of what -- aside from his undeniable singing, playing, and performing gift -- makes him appealing, and it gives his melodies their particular melodic character. Though it is usual to characterize Davis as a blues artist, and that's not inaccurate, he's more like an old-time songster possessed of a broader vernacular-music vocabulary."

Kenny Neal is ready and willing to Let Life Flow through the blues. "This is good stuff. Neal's guitar attack is slashing, filled with confidence and flair but not obtrusive; it never gets in the way of the song the way the work of some guitar slingers does. Instead, it enhances, propelling the song forward," says Michael Scott Cain. "Yet even as his influences show and even as he pays tribute to his mentors, Neal is always himself, always propelling the music forward rather than living in its past."

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro fails to impress with this reissue of A Mortal Glamour. "The gist of this soulless exercise in soft-core horror porn apparently lies in the notion that 'real' supernatural menaces are superfluous when religious and other forms of hysteria are ratcheted up to levels that make supposedly good people do, well, naughty things to one another all by themselves," Gary Cramer opines.

"At the risk of sounding like the king in Amadeus who complains about Mozart's music having 'too many notes,' as it stands, Glamour gloms on just too many points of view and too many chapters that begin by giving you the uncomfortable sense that something really important must have happened in between now and the last time you saw the characters at hand, but you're never going to learn what that was. And with a story that's this needlessly padded to begin with, that's just a mortal sin."

Elizabeth Hand takes a break from dark, Gothic fantasy for "a grittier, more realistic turn" in Generation Loss. "This train wreck of a story is written so skillfully that the reader will find it difficult to put down," Donna Scanlon says. "The multiple levels of mystery, the setting and the characters work together seamlessly. In Generation Loss, Hand proves that real life can be scarier and stranger than fantasy."

Neil Gaiman's modern classic Coraline gets the graphic novel treatment at the talented hands of Sandman collaborator P. Craig Russell. "As visual adaptations go, it's pretty good, though curiously unexciting. Russell's highly intricate artwork is always a pleasure, but here his typically arabesque style seems somewhat more straightforward," says Mary Harvey.

"Still, the illustrations put a good framework on the prose. This can be very helpful for a reader of the novella who might have trouble envisioning what the characters look like or how all the action plays out inside of one large, rambling magical home. The art, if unoriginal, provides a good, basic visual play-by-play."

Susan La Muse "is no ordinary superhero," Tom Knapp says, as you'll learn for yourself if you read the provocative new release, La Muse.

"La Muse is a new kind of graphic novel. Lacking the usual superhero/supervillain fisticuffs, this self-contained tale ponders the moral questions surrounding a being with god-like powers in an otherwise mundane world. It's a thrilling concept, presented here without the usual, often worn-out tropes of the genre. Bravo!"

Tom also takes a gander at Adam Warren's Empowered 4 -- and who can blame him, since (sorry, Mom!) the heroine keeps shredding her superhero tights. "So readers get to see a lot of Adam Warren's titular character, and this, the fourth collection, is no different," he says.

"What makes this series fun is Warren's handling of the various characters, from her best friend, the ninja, to her boyfriend, a former witless minion for evil turned generic thug. The other, more competent heroes are awash in their own feelings of ubercoolness, and even the villains have their charms; sometimes, they even seem to feel a little bad for taking advantage of Emp's weaknesses."

Jaime de Angulo mixes fiction and folklore in Indian Tales: Indian Folklore, Rituals, Hunting Adventures, Allegories, Tall Tales, Blessings & Curses. "Be warned: Indian Tales is not what you would expect. The author explains that if you are seriously interested in learning about the folklore of California Native Americans, you should study the books listed in the bibliography," Karen Elkins says. "De Angulo was having fun with the creation of a story that mixed the beliefs and traditions of all the tribes together -- more or less, his story is the melting pot of all the California native folklore and culture."

Tom Knapp had a ball watching Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, and he thinks you will, too. "The Hollywood writer's strike of 2008 bore bitter fruit for a great many television viewers, but there was one rose among the thorns that made it all worthwhile. OK, so it's not a perfect metaphor. But Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog might never have seen the light of day if those writers hadn't struck, and that would have been a terrible loss to the artistic world," he says. "Joss Whedon, the creative genius behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, opted to make use of some of that downtime to put together a little project with his friends.

"Oh, did I mention this was a musical? Anyone who saw the landmark Buffy musical 'Once More with Feeling' knows what Whedon and his crew are capable of. The songs aren't just catchy, they're invasive; expect to hear them running through your head quite often, and you might well find yourself singing along. Still, while you might expect this all to boil down to comic fluff, Whedon packs the show with clever shifts, deep thoughts and unexpected twists."

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

17 January 2009

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

Ack! Cold! Need furnace now!

April Verch drifts a little further from the Celtic-Canadian roots of her earlier recordings with Steal the Blue. "Blue gives one -- well, me -- the impression of being two albums, one for devotees of Celtic- and French-Canadian-flavored fiddle music, the other, where Verch sings (with technical perfection) in an atmospheric little-girl's soprano, for lovers of Alison Krauss's brand of acoustic country and bluegrass-pop," Jerome Clark says. "Verch is one more gifted young woman, raised on bluegrass, folk and country, who's heading down the acoustic-pop route pioneered by Krauss. If you want to travel with her, it's your bus fare. I expect that you'll enjoy the ride and the scenery."

The Darbuki Kings go questing for a Middle-Eastern sound with Lawrence of Suburbia. "There are many groups that sample world music, including that of the Middle East, but these guys stand out," Dave Howell says. "Most such projects create slow, meditative electronica. The 13 tracks here are lively with complex percussion. Real percussion like tablas, not irritating, fake sounding 'beats.' A few synths here and there add flavor to the strings and drums."

Sleepy John Estes is taking the blues On 80 Highway. "Don't let the copyright date fool you. On 80 Highway was recorded in 1973 just prior to Sleepy John's tour of Japan," says Michael Scott Cain. "Not that the recording date makes much difference; there is a consistency to Estes' work that makes it all sound as if had been recorded about three days after Ralph Peer's first trip to Bristol in search of talent."

Magic Slim & the Teardrops offer up a selection of Midnight Blues. "If the blues is basic transportation, Magic Slim is the Concorde. The man drives, pushes, slams ahead with a thrust that propels him almost beyond the sound barrier," Michael says. "Even when he plays the standard blues riffs, you know it's Magic Slim who is playing them."

Melvin Smith snaps a Portrait of gospel jazz. "The sound here is mainstream, but it never descends into the blandness of smooth jazz. The Berklee College-educated Smith produced the CD himself, and although it is never jarring, he does not smooth out his soprano and tenor sax too much," Dave Howell says. "Smith's solos are intricate and cerebral, yet there is an uplifting feel to the whole CD. Everything is done for a purpose, without noodling or slackness. If this is what gospel jazz is like, you can count me as a believer."

Sandy Kastel reinterprets some jazz standards for This Time Around. "There are some great arrangements here. Nothing radically different, as Sandy Kastel is a Vegas-styled entertainer ('Viva Las Vegas' is included here). But on many of the 15 tracks she is backed by a big band, something you don't hear much anymore," Dave says. "Ten brass horns, eight woodwinds and a number of strings add a lot of power. It reminds you of some of the great Sinatra sessions."

It's never too early in the season to warn you against a bad choice for holiday music. Christina Aguilera's My Kind of Christmas is one such selection to avoid. "Aguilera fills the album with mediocre pop stylings, some of which are at least covers of classic Christmas songs," Tom Knapp warns. "But her efforts here fail to ignite even a spark of holiday spirit; rather, she dampens any real sense of Christmas joy with her anemic, blues-inflected warblings and trendy mixes."

Brian Lumley offers more Cthulhu mythos-inspired tales -- and other stuff, too -- in Haggopian & Other Stories: Best Mythos Tales, Volume II. "Subterranean Press's first collection of Lumley's vivid takes on Lovecraftian lore (The Taint & Other Stories) featured novellas in which there was room for more plot, more characterization and more dread to be layered into the scenes of stygian horror than we get much of in this gathering of 24 short stories. Depending on your tolerance for the sort of plots that tend to dominate mythos outings (the kind with lots of overwrought narration and dialogue that sounds straight out of Hammer bodice-rippers leading up to few truly happy endings and many sticky ones), this may be a good thing or a bad thing," Gary Cramer says. "As was the case in Taint, some of the best oddities in this collection highlight Lumley's penchant for ichthyology, deep-sea mysteries and dank seaside settings."

David Almond explores childhood relationships with a touch of metaphysics and a coming-of-age story in Clay. "This retelling of the golem legend combined with a hint of Frankenstein is set in the north country of England where Almond grew up, and his affection for it shows in the descriptions of family and places," says Donna Scanlon. "The narrative, told in first person by Davie, seems almost hushed, as if he were revealing a secret to the reader, and Davie seems like a person trapped in a nightmare. He is the only person who can wake himself. This is reflected in the thoughtful, gentle pace of the book and the shift from past tense to present tense in the third part of the book."

Allison Whittenberg says Life is Fine in this young-adult novel about Samara Tuttle and the world of poetry that changed her life. "Whittenberg's story is simply told and is powerful in its simplicity. Samara's response to the new chain of events in her life is like someone waking from an intense and bad dream," Donna says. "Samara tells the story in first person. She is an honest narrator who does not embellish her situation, and she adds a healthy dose of self-analysis to the story. The reader sympathizes with her easily, especially at her lowest points. At the same time, she doesn't drown in self-pity, and as her strength emerges, so does her personality."

Neil Gaiman joins forces with artist Michael Zulli to transform the short story The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch into a graphic novel. "Zulli's art 'reads' very well in this macabre gem, but it does seem to be missing its usual flair," Mary Harvey worries. "His usually detailed work is very stripped down here, more serviceable than singular, nowhere near as intense as he normally is. It's very clear, done in fine lines with beautifully washed-out colors, and the layout is quite good, reflecting the action exactly as it appears in the prose version of the story. It is not, however, the cerebral, imaginative artwork I have come to expect of him."

Tom Knapp turns a thumb's down on Paul Jenkins' Jekyll & Hyde, a new graphic novel featuring the Batman. "What could have been a fascinating psychological thriller suffers in part because the concept has been overdone. Batman has addressed his own 'dark side' more times than Robin has used the word 'holy' in a sentence. Jenkins has merely taken yet another path to a very hackneyed destination," he says. "As for Two-Face, the dichotomy between his scarred and unscarred sides has been defined and redefined so often, it's hard to consider him the same villain from story to story. Now we're asked to consider, not just a second personality, but the "ghost" personality of someone -- you'll figure out very quickly who -- in Dent's past who now inhabits his consciousness and makes him do bad things ... usually over Harvey's milquetoast protests."

Tom also takes a look at the first volume of the Tomb Raider series, Saga of the Medusa Mask. "Indiana Jones totally rocks. Lara Croft is a pale imitation who uses pistols instead of a whip and, instead of a trademark fedora, has really large boobs," he explains. "The art by Andy Park is immensely good. The story by Dan Jurgens isn't bad -- my only complaint is the sudden and dramatic twist at the end that builds on too many cliches and really doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

Johanna R.M. Lyback is resurrected in this old collection of Indian Legends. "I want to make it perfectly clear that this is a great book, especially when used for its only viable purpose -- to examine the mindset of the 1920s and the attitudes toward Native Americans. It is an interesting and vibrantly entertaining read. The artwork, far past being mere illustrations, is an optical feast that will enchant you. It is easy to become caught up in the art and lose all track of time," Karen Elkins says. "However, I must point out that many of these legends have absolutely nothing to do with Native Americans."

Miles O'Dometer revisits the late 1960s in Talk to Me, a film biography about Ralph Waldo "Petie" Greene: an ex-con who was to become a Washington, D.C.-area DJ, TV host, standup comic and, most importantly, a community activist and voice of the unheard. "There are some incredibly moving scenes, such as the one in which Greene has to announce the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Within minutes, the city is ablaze, and people start looking at Greene to do something about it. And he does -- with a little help from, of all people, James Brown," Miles says. "There are also some -- make that many -- hysterically funny moments. ... But the truth isn't always pretty, and Talk to Me goes to great lengths to tell the whole story of a man who was thinking just about as far outside the box as you can. At a time when so many films are barely watchable, this one's rewatchable. In fact, I recommend it."

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

9 January 2009

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

We're back! Two lovely, relaxing weeks later, the offices at Rambles.NET are grinding back into gear. However, we are in the process of reorganizing things here a bit, and that might mean slightly shorter-than-usual editions during that cumbersome but necessary process. (Hey, if anyone lives in or near Lancaster, Pa., and likes sorting through stacks of books and CDs, drop us a line.) Things should be back to normal pretty darn soon, if we can just figure out this filing system....

The Mandolinquents take a spin in a Dance of the Comedians. "Live recordings are dangerous. Yes, the performance may go horribly wrong, but what I mean is that they can also be addictive to the fan -- and this is definitely one of the latter," Nicky Rossiter says. "Simon Mayor has made the mandolin the 'axe' of the new century. Here he is joined by his oft-time collaborator Hilary James along with Gerald Garcia and Richard Collins. This delightfully named group, the Mandolinquents, take us on a trip through fantasy land with mandolins, banjo, violin, guitar and mandobass -- a really weird looking 'yoke' -- that makes great music."

Mike Grosshandler is working with music he Wrote Myself. "Wrote Myself is full of consistently good music, with the guitar and his vocals blending well into each other," says Paul de Bruijn. "Some of the songs may be harder to connect to, and the emotional side of the song might seem to be either flat or missing. But then you have the songs where the emotional connection is there where you can feel it, and it is very good."

Alicia Keister makes her debut with Heartwood. "Here is another wonderful new talent laying out her stall and inviting you in," Nicky Rossiter says. "Are you going to leap in and experience a set of new and exciting songs from this young talent, or will you wait around for the next CD from a rich and tired well-known singer? ... This is a little treasure worth digging for."

Donna Ulisse grows more confident with her music on Walk This Mountain Down. "As I hear her, I am led to reflect that bluegrass might have become something like this if it had taken a toehold in the Nashville mainstream -- in other words, found a way to keep a large, ever less rural mass audience and to get played on country-music radio -- and moved in parallel evolution even as it kept its own distinct identity. One thinks, too, of Alison Krauss and of Dolly Parton in her trio of bluegrass albums on Sugar Hill a few years ago," Jerome Clark says. "If she keeps getting better at this -- and she's pretty good at it already -- Donna Ulisse is surely on her way to the front ranks."

The Elkville String Band heads Over the Mountain while blurring the boundaries between old-time mountain music, early bluegrass and traditional country. "Heart songs, ballads, hymns, gospel numbers, fiddle tunes antique and newly made -- this is pretty much my definition of the stuff of happiness," Jerome enthuses. "Another definition is the chance to hear lovingly fashioned music that sounds at once old and fresh. Hasten, my friends, to Elkville String Band and Over the Mountain."

The Back Settlement Band leads an Ojibwe Revival with 14 hymns in the Nishnaabemowin language. "Put simply, this is marvelously evocative and soulful music, that I am finding somehow both stimulating and peaceful at the same time," John Bird says. "We often seem to feel the need to go far afield in search of unique and powerful traditional music -- Brazil, the Congo, Reunion, Okinawa. But here's something homegrown right under my southern-Ontario nose that is as beautiful and integrity-filled as anything I've heard. If I sound enthusiastic, it's because I am."

Nothing this week, but we have a deuce of Great Big Sea concert reviews and more from Celtic Colours coming up soon! And hey, if you want to see more reviews here, why aren't you volunteering to lend a hand??? Eh?

Charlaine Harris "is hitting her stride in this new mystery-paranormal venture" in Grave Surprise, Becky Kyle says. "The action is fast-paced. I found the killer a little too easily, but the mystery was still worth reading," she says. "I'm looking forward to the next episode."

Michael Cunningham inhabits A Home at the End of the World in this modern age. "It's a new version of family, illustrated here through the first-person perspectives of its three leads, who alternate turns every 15 pages or so in detailing their daily interactions with one another," says Eric Hughes. "A Home at the End of the World is an interesting take on the modern definition of family, and how three individuals challenge what society typically labels a home. Though I must say bits of it come off a tad preachy. And I've certainly read better dialogue, which sometimes here is more melodramatic than the particular scene calls for. But all and all a solid read. I downed it in a day."

Tom Knapp blames books like Crime Pays for the unfortunate cancellation of the ongoing Catwoman series. "Much of the story here takes place on a faraway planet in a distant galaxy -- and, well, that's just not where Catwoman belongs. She's a street fighter and a high-rise thief, not a science-fiction heroine," he moans. "I hope DC takes Catwoman back to her roots -- the street and the penthouse, not outer space -- and continues exploring the character of a villain with a heart of gold. Or is she a hero with a larcenous streak? It's hard to tell. Either way, she's one of the DC's best female solo acts, and she deserves her own title."

Next, Tom settles back with a little Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Wolves at the Gate. "In the final analysis, it won't matter that there was a clan of nifty Japanese vampires who had stolen Dracula's powers, or that Dracula himself came out of a self-imposed, self-pitying retirement to help defeat them. People might forget that a giant-sized Dawn smashed her way through downtown Tokyo and battled it out with an equally large robot version of herself as a slayer army clashed with the vampire clan on the brink of losing their enhanced abilities. Even the death of a secondary but memorable character might be overlooked when all is said and done," he says. "No, what people will remember from Wolves at the Gates is that this is when Buffy was, for an instant, bi-curious. Twice. And, so far as we can tell, very thoroughly."

Mark Allen chimes in with a few Elemental Fources. "Four people, granted elemental powers, are formed to battle an ancient evil and protect a powerful metaphysical artifact called the Terminus Libre. Along with a group of scientists/alchemists (who also dabble in magic) called The Brotherhood, they seek to stave off the forces of evil on the eve of Apocalypse," he says. "Unfortunately, Fources is not terribly original on its surface, which is not a good thing in today's glut of four-color flash and little substance. Super-team books are a dime a dozen and that makes it difficult from the get-go not to be derivative. That means that writer Crisman Strunk must work hard to make characterization shine in this book. He seems to be polishing."

C.J. Taylor provides seven stories "that reflect the indigenous peoples' awe and fascination with the heavenly bodies" in All the Stars in the Sky: Native Stories from the Heavens, Karen Elkins says. "The natives did not have light pollution to dilute the intensity of the night sky and were much more aware of the sizes, shapes, patterns and movements than the average modern person. Of course, they created stories to explain what they saw," she says. "If you read to children in any capacity, All the Stars in the Sky is an ideal book."

Miles O'Dometer takes a gander at Charlie Wilson's War. "So now we know: The Cold War ended in a hot tub. We know because Charlie Wilson's War tells us so," Miles says. "And it might not have happened at all, it seems, if Wilson (Tom Hanks), then a congressman from Texas, hadn't crawled into that Las Vegas hot tub to talk to one Crystal Lee (Jud Tylor) about the possibility of his backing her in a Dallas-style TV series set in Washington, D.C. But Wilson's mind never really seemed to be on the Playboy bunny next to him in the tub: Rather it was on Rather in a turban -- Dan Rather in a turban, that is, delivering a report from Afghanistan about the Soviet invasion on a TV by the hot tub. ... There are, it seems, some advantages to attention-deficit disorder."

Still in the mood for a little Christmas? Karen Elkins wants to tell you about Miss Lettie & Me, a holiday "chick flick" if you're in the market for that sort of thing. "The only thing this movie offers is one long, drawn-out emotional ride that changes scenes a few times. No action. Very little humor. No suspense. Just a look at how a woman overcomes her bitterness at her niece, accepts that niece's daughter into her home and life, and rekindles an old romance after severe matchmaking by the child, while the child deals with hurt and anger over abandonment," Karen warns. "It drags on and on."

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

25 December 2008

The holidays are keeping us occupied and largely away from our computers, so there won't be a new edition this week. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia or the Solistice -- or all of the above -- we hope you have a great holiday season! See you in 2009....

20 December 2008

Ho ho ho!
- Santa Claus

Whatever you celebrate or believe, we hope you have a grand and grander holiday season. Cheers!

The Sands Family is fine as long as they Keep on Singing. "Keep on Singing reminds me of the power, potential and absolute necessity of folk music if our world is to mean anything and to have a conscience," says Nicky Rossiter. "Over the years, the Sands Family has splintered, given us top-class individual performances and then re-formed. This album would be an excellent introduction to four people whose individual talents are formidable, but together can become magic."

Whisht makes itself heard through The Cuckoo's Note. "This beautiful collection of songs is the outward expression of Whisht's passion for all that is good and exciting in the song tradition of Ireland. Our traditional music has had a long exposure to international audiences, but the unaccompanied human voice has traveled less successfully -- with some notable exceptions," Nicky says. "With the 14 tracks on offer here, the listener has an opportunity to sample the wide range of such songs that are embedded in the canon. They can be melodic songs of loss or humorous songs full of wit and mischief."

Noel Lenaghan makes himself heard on A Long Time Since. "Like Christy Moore, Ronnie Drew and Shane McGowan, Noel Lenaghan's sound is distinctive even though it may not be to everyone's liking. But, with 11 tracks on offer here, there are songs for every mood and all tastes -- provided you enjoy good music," Nicky says. "His ability to make music and song from the everyday or even mundane makes this album hum."

The Lorie Line series of holiday recordings comes to an end with Sharing the Season, Vol. 4: The Big Band. "If you own the three previous Lorie Line Sharing the Season albums, you'll be able to hear a difference right away when you pop in this one. It's the most orchestrated disc in the series released to date by the talented Minneapolis pianist," Corinne Smith says. "Here the arrangements involve the entire group of musicians and don't as frequently highlight individuals, at least not for very long. And with more brass instruments than ever before, the music really does have a big band feel."

Raymond McCullough heads Into Jerusalem with his Celtic-rock sound infused with Jewish songs of worship. "If you like a heavy dose of religion in your Celtic rock, I might have just the CD for you," Wil Owen says. "The music ranges from lively jigs to some Celtic and bluegrass tunes and a few tracks that border on hymns. Much of the CD has a rock beat in the background, yet there are also some slower-paced, more solemn tracks."

R. Carlos Nakai continues to demonstrate his mastery of the Native American flute with his latest release, Talisman. "Collaborating with other musicians in duets, jazz ensembles and symphonic orchestras, he draws a wide circle of cross-cultural exploration," says Thomas Ardizzone. "In Talisman, Nakai returns to his roots, the solo flute. Every other track is dubbed with a second flute part. In this case, more is better. Lower notes ground the pieces, while the upper register ornamentations circle over our heads like an eagle. The purity of his tone and his compositions take your mind through ancient dwellings of red clay under blue skies."

Big Country Bluegrass is Open for Business. "Long a highly regarded regional act -- in this case along the fabled Virginia-North Carolina border, where mountain music and its modern descendant bluegrass have long thrived -- BCBG had a stellar year in 2008, driven by Open for Business, its first for Karl Cooler's Mountain Roads label, and a single (the album's opener), Grady Bullins's 'High Alleghenies,' popular on bluegrass radio," Jerome Clark says. "To every appearance -- happily for all who should hear what BCBG's 'business' is -- soon BCBG and regional may not reflexively share the same sentence."

Steven Pressfield steps back in time for a shot at Killing Rommel. "This author has a knack for writing historical novels -- Gates of Fire and Tides of War being two examples. Pressfield is adept at mixing fictional characters in with authentic persons and events of the time," Wil Owen says. "Killing Rommel is an excellent book. I had a hard time putting it down. I found myself getting up at 4:30 in the morning to get in some reading before going to work."

Stephenie Meyer has made a Rowling-like impact on young readers with Twilight, which wrapped up the series (sort of) with Breaking Dawn. "Described as a clash between the romance novel and vampire lit, the Twilight saga chronicles the strange, teenage love affair between human Bella Swan and vampire Edward Cullen," notes Eric Hughes. "Breaking Dawn, actually, is very much like reading two novels in one. Not just because the book weighs in at more than 750 pages, but because with Breaking Dawn author Stephenie Meyer has penned a story with two distinct climaxes, where the ending of the first part complicates and heavily influences what happens in the latter half."

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is brought forward from her 1920s heyday with a pair of books newly published in a single volume, Dark Power and The Old Battle-Ax. "There are few literary pleasures more satisfying than discovering an author whose work has been long forgotten, whose books have been out of print and unavailable for years, but who would have been found, in a better world, in every bookstore and library," says Michael Scott Cain. "Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is one of those authors. ... Reading these two novels makes you hope that somewhere a publisher is preparing to reissue Holding's other 23."

Terry Brooks introduced our Becky Kyle to urban fantasy by Running with the Demon in the first book of The Word & the Void. "I was a devoted Shannara fan seeing Terry Brooks for the first time when he was publicizing Running with the Demon at a local bookshop. I got a signed copy, of course, but told him urban fantasy was not my bag," she recalls. "Brooks replied, 'Just keep the book. You'll need it eventually.' He was right. One night, I needed something different, and there was Running with the Demon waiting for me."

Tom Knapp has a trio of graphic novel reviews to share this week. My goodness, that section is growing fast! Have you checked it out lately?

First up is a whole lot of The Middleman in The Collected Series: Indispensability. "The book contains three major adventures by writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, plus a few side trips and flashbacks in time. One deals with gangster monkeys, another with Mexican wrestlers, a martial arts expert and a diamond-generated laser cage. The third has a giant alien robot and the global organization of evil known as F.A.T.B.O.Y.," Tom says. "It all comes together with quirky black-and-white art, courtesy of Les McClaine. ...

"But even the good art and genuinely entertaining plots pale in comparison to Grillo-Marxuach's excellent dialogue, which just makes this book sing."

The recent graphic novel Street Magik was something of a surprise. "Discovering the novels of Charles de Lint back in the 1980s changed my perspective on modern fantasy. I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Luke Lieberman had a similar revelation," Tom says.

"Street Magik takes mysticism out of the realm of goblins and wizards and drops it directly in the heart of New York City. ... Black-and-white illustrations by Rodney Buchemi are intricately detailed and drawn. And the story, co-scripted by Lieberman and Kevin McCarthy, shows a lot of promise for fans of urban fantasy."

Tom says he "can only imagine how much thought Don McGregor put into figuring out what it would be like to be chained inside the mouth of a beached and decomposing blue whale as the tide flows in and fills the leviathan's gullet with storm-driven waters. I mean, how did he even come up with the idea?" But that's a central scene in Zorro's Renegades, which features a female masked vigilante, an Indian freedom fighter and, of course, Zorro's usual nemeses among the provincial Spanish government in California.

"Lady Rawhide, the anger-driven and scantily clad senorita who has proven a fair hand with a whip in past issues, is back for more -- and her temper hasn't cooled," Tom says. "Moonstalker, a native wrongly whipped by the Spanish overlords before being rescued by Zorro, has devised vast improvements on the basic bow-and-arrow concept -- and he plans to use his explosive new technology to take revenge on the Spaniards and strike a blow for Native American rights. And Zorro, who certainly has no love for the Spanish, finds himself with the unenviable task of trying to save their lives -- a task most difficult when chained inside a whale and left to drown."

Woo! That was an action-packed threesome! Look for even more next week.

Mary Crow Dog digs into the heart of her story in Lakota Woman. "If you are the faint-hearted type that cannot deal with the graphic horror of rapes, beatings, mutilations and murders, this is not a book for you. If you are the type that believes the government and good, decent white folks never did the Indians wrong, this is not a book for you," says Alicia Karen Elkins. "For the rest of you, this is a book to set your teeth on edge! Make every effort to get it and read every word."

Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey explore the changes of belief in Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion & Apostasy. "The authors point out that, while no two conversion experiences are exactly the same, most fall into a pattern," says Michael Scott Cain.

"We see Jews becoming both Christians and Messianic Jews, Catholics becoming Evangelicals, and Evangelicals becoming Catholic. In each section, we hear from people who have made those trips. They tell their stories, mostly in their own words and if, after a while, most of the stories sound the same, well, that's the thesis of the book, a demonstration that the pattern the authors discuss is actually operational."

Alicia Karen Elkins charges into the weekend before Christmas with a quartet of holiday film recommendations.

First up today is Ms. Scrooge, which Karen describes as "a fascinatingly modern and feminine adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. ... Do not expect to see any special effects here. This film stands solely on the solid acting, which is more than enough to keep the viewer engrossed in the story. And it will not matter that you know the plot. This film makes you feel as if you are hearing it for the first time."

Next up is The Christmas Wife, which Karen urges you to avoid. "It is not often that the Canadians disappoint me with their entertainment efforts, but The Christmas Wife did exactly that. It was a huge ... enormous ... colossal disappointment. Worse still, they had a great storyline, but let it totally collapse," she says. "Of all the movies I have ever watched, I believe this is the most boring. If not, I must have slept completely through the most boring without realizing I watched it."

Divorced parents with conniving kids might see a bit of themselves in All I Want for Christmas. "This is a cute movie, but the story has been done to death -- plus most of the divorced parents have lived it and do not care to relive the story, even if only for two hours," Karen says. "For a movie with this storyline to be good or hold the viewer's attention, they have to show us some new, updated tricks."

And, to round out Karen's Christmas quarter, we have Must Be Santa. "If you are looking for a unique spin on the Christmas scene and visions of the North Pole, get Must Be Santa. You have never seen the North Pole like this," she says. "The acting is fine and the special effects are a knockout. The movie is visually intriguing and mentally stimulating. It offers action, suspense and humor rolled into a strong drama."

For more timely movies, check out our holiday film section ... and be sure to have a merry, merry!

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