28 March 2009 to 4 July 2009

4 July 2009

Instead of getting married again, I'm going to find a woman I don't like and give her a house.
- Lewis Grizzard

A decade ago, a dozen new reviews made for a fairly sizable edition of Rambles. A few years back, however, a dozen would have been a lazy week. What happened? Well, in some ways, we got too popular. Books and CDs are coming in for review at such a rapid rate that it's getting hard to keep on top of them all, much less open and sort them, assign them and mail them out to reviewers. Too, we've grown to the extent that a few more pairs of hands for writing and editing would not go amiss.

So, if you'd like to be a part of the process and help Rambles grow again, drop us a line and let's see if you'd be a good fit. We look forward to hearing from you!

By the way, happy Fourth of July to all our American readers!!!

The People & Songs of the Sea come under the spotlight from the folks at Greentrax. "The sea is probably the most emotionally charged elements of our world. Whether we see the calming and soothing sunset over water or the stormy, wind-lashed rocky shore, we are drawn to it. Maybe it is the majesty or maybe it is the belief that in the beginning we all originated in the water. In any case, this collection of 21 tracks will appeal to all with basic human urges and genetic memory," Nicky Rossiter says.

"The album is connected to a photographic exhibition of the same name, but luckily for a potential worldwide audience it stands alone very well. The artists are the cream of Scottish performers giving their all on works by the best of Scottish writers."

Jerome Clark takes a look at a pair of fresh albums in the blues department: Living in the Light by Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters and Stomp! The Blues Tonight by Duke Robillard's Jumpin' Blues Revue.

"Two new releases from a couple of veteran blues players are as dissimilar in character as any two blues discs could be. Duke Robillard looks back to the loose-limbed, good-time vibe of jump blues -- arguably, rock 'n' roll's closest ancestor -- while Ronnie Earl sounds like a man relieved that, thanks to a Higher Power, he's still alive," Jerome says. "These are both top-tier recordings, as one would expect from able musicians and ace guitarists who have been recording and performing for decades. One is not better than the other; they're just different. Which one you want to hear depends on what kind of mood you're in and what you wish music to do for you at a given moment."

Greg Brown also caught Jerome's ear with Dream City: Essential Recordings Vol. 2, 1997-2006. "The Iowa-based singer-songwriter Greg Brown -- cult favorite, critics' darling, once subject of a full-length New Yorker profile -- has been at it a long time, honing a style that owes in equal measure to folk-music and literary influences. It's not entirely fair to compare him to anybody else, but if you haven't heard him and want some broad idea of what to expect, you might imagine what Richard Thompson might have been like if he'd grown up in the rural Midwest," Jerome says.

"Brown delivers the lyrics in a croaky drawl. Like many memorable folk singers, his is not a conventionally pretty voice, but it wouldn't work so effectively if it were. It makes him sound like the characters he's singing about. If they were telling you about their lives, they'd tell them to you in that ragged rumble, too."

Carlos Ruiz Zafon's newly translated prequel to The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel's Game (El juego del angel), is "a worthy follow-up to his phenomenal debut," Eric Hughes says. "Yet the tome lacks the 'magic' of the original," he says. "The author takes too much time at the onset to set up his premise and insert his characters into the action. Thus, the narrative merely trots along for quite awhile, encompassing at least 150 pages (if not more) before things get moderately interesting. Then Zafon steers a strange turn as the story begins wrapping itself off -- leaving behind a number of significant plot holes and moments of confusion in its path."

Charles de Lint takes a new tack -- in a new location -- in his latest adult urban-fantasy novel, The Mystery of Grace. "De Lint, after an extended stay in his fictional city of Newford and a minor detour into the world of young-adult fiction, returns to his usual, more adult brand of storytelling with Grace," Tom Knapp says. "Unlike Newford, Solona isn't a mystical nexus bursting at the seems with acute mysteries, tangible legends and a population largely ready to accept and believe in any strange thing that comes down the pike; these folks are more like you and me, and they don't stand with one foot in a fantasy realm.

"But that doesn't mean the strange and magical doesn't exist. For Grace, it comes hard on the heels of a life-altering moment -- and the true-love moment she experiences just a few weeks later could be hopelessly compromised by her new situation."

James Nelson turns his attention to the Civil War for Glory in the Name, the first novel in his Confederate Navy series. "As heroic figures go, Lt. Samuel Bowater is not the equal of Thomas Marlowe and Isaac Biddlecomb, both of whom are ship's captains in other historic novels by James L. Nelson. And neither the Cape Fear nor the Yazoo River, both vessels captained by Bowater in this book, inspire the awe evoked by the tall-masted ships featured in those earlier books," Tom says.

"But Bowater's is a different kind of story, and Glory in the Name is a very different kind of book. ... It is a time of upheaval, not only for the sundered nation but also for the navy men. The graceful, wind-driven wooden ships are passing into history as graceless, coal-burning steam engines come into vogue, and iron -- both as protective plating and deadly underwater rams -- is changing the nature of war."

Amanda Filipacchi has a thing for Nude Men ... and so, apparently, does our reviewer. "I am not quite sure what to say about this book, except I absolutely loved it," Cherise Everhard says. "This tale is crazy, hilarious, daring, politically incorrect, tragic, ironic, but most of all tremendous. Every character in this story has a remarkable way of cutting through the BS and just being real and true to themselves. A more colorful cast of characters you will never find. Its brutal honesty isn't always pleasant, but I think that's what makes it so great. I laughed, I cried, I didn't want to set it down and I didn't want it to end."

Mary Harvey opens her heart to Janes in Love, a recent graphic novel from DC Comics' new Minx line. "Picking up where The Plain Janes left off, Janes in Love finds the band of high school renegade artists still committing acts of art, still brushing up against the law, still wondering when they are going to get boyfriends. Apparently, it's a lot easier to create acts of art than it is to figure out what to do with adolescent males," she says.

"There is less art on display and more emotion and inner turmoil. The theme is one of freedom of speech vs. repression; more to the point, it's about not being afraid to speak, or face, the truth about what frightens us. ... JiL pulls off the neat trick of being cerebral and rather deep while also being fast and funny, with characters believable enough to give the story realistic weight."

By the way, we saw some pretty cool new material at the recent Wizard World convention in Philadelphia. Stay tuned!

Stuart Kelly gives us what we never had in The Book of Lost Books. "Kelly shares with us his annotated list of literature that has been lost throughout history, beginning with good ol' Anonymous in pre-history and ending with Georges Perec in the 20th century. Along the way, he peeks in on such writers as Hesiod, Shakespeare, Jean Racine, Jane Austen, Emile Zola and Ernest Hemingway. Each author's entry, while mentioning the works that were not lost, goes into detail about the works that either were lost or never written," Laurie Thayer says.

"Each entry contains a certain amount of humor, and while I can't recommend sitting down and reading straight through the book -- unless encyclopedias are your thing -- The Book of Lost Books is great fun in small doses."

Hank Hanegraaff fails to sway our reviewer with Christianity in Crisis: 21st Century. "With notes and bibliography, Christianity in Crisis runs 425 pages. Without repetition, it would probably check in at less than 200," says Michael Scott Cain. "Author Hank Hanegraaff takes the same few arguments and beats them to death, going at them like a man trying to destroy a car by whacking it repeatedly with a rubber hammer.

"I hadn't read more than 50 pages of Christianity in Crisis before I felt that to review it would be to attack its wrongheadedness, dogmatic rigidity and utter lack of Christian charity. I prepared counter-arguments and objections, but by the time I got three-quarters of the way through the book, I felt the whole thing was just too sad to attack."

Molly Ebert gets her head in the game with George Clooney's Leatherheads. "A talkie ... that's what Leatherheads is. It's a talkie," she says. "No, this isn't referring to the term used in the 1920s when sound was first inserted into movies. I'm speaking of that indelible element that stems from classic movies; that quick-witted, fast-paced dialogue that keeps you reeling, and if you're not paying attention you'll miss some important stuff. Leatherheads, directed by George Clooney, is a nostalgic commemoration of that craft."

Ready for a little Christmas in July? Karen Elkins serves it up with Santa Jr.. "Only in modern America would Santa be arrested for trespassing, breaking and entering, burglary and possession of cocaine (his magic dust). Santa Jr. shows us the woes of the modern jolly old gent and his trusted head elf, while keeping us absolutely entertained and often rolling with laughter," she says. "Santa Jr. is a movie for the whole family to enjoy. It will entertain you and make you believe in the spirit of Christmas. Incidentally, I have never heard the Christmas spirit explained as well as it is at the end of this movie. It is awesome!"

You think we're done? Ha!! 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 more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)

27 June 2009

Rambles is on vacation this week. (Keywords include "water park," "sunburn" and "basement leak.") See you in seven!!

20 June 2009

If you think you're too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.
- Bette Reese

Early posting today. Off to Wizard World!!

Chris Flegg offers The Sound of Life on this jazz-inflected folk recording from London. "Flegg is an excellent writer and performer -- he serves double duty on guitars and soprano sax -- with a repertoire that is fresh and thought-provoking," Nicky Rossiter says. "What more do you need? Buy it and encourage good writing."

Colin Linden is far From the Water on this album of bluesy folk. "Among Canada's most respected roots artists, Colin Linden keeps busy as solo performer, band member (of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, whose most recent release I reviewed in this space on 9 May 2009) and producer for a range of worthy folk, blues and rock recording acts. Given who Linden is and what his talents are, From the Water is almost predictable in its considerable appeal. As he plays guitars, sings, composes and produces, a crackerjack band spews out greasy, funky notes, exciting the spirit of any listener who has one," Jerome Clark says.

"There is not a clunker here, nowhere anything less than intelligently conceived and movingly expressed, but a word of warning is in order. 'The Heaven Me,' the unsparing penultimate cut, is not suited to casual listening. A tribute to a beloved friend, keyboard man Richard Bell, who died before his time, it will lay you on the floor."

The Cedar Hill Refugees offer something a little unusual with this Pale Imperfect Diamond. "The Cedar Hill Refugees are not a band but a one-off gathering of Nashville and Uzbek -- yes, you read that right -- musicians assembled to play Anglo-Celtic and American folk songs, plus a few in-the-tradition originals, with Uzbek accents. Huh? I can hear you gasping all the way from where you sit," Jerome muses.

"I know a fair amount about the Anglo-Celtic-American tradition, nothing about Uzbekistan's. (Uzbekistan is one of those countries known broadly and vaguely to Americans as a "former Soviet republic.") On Pale Imperfect Diamond the band Jadoo represents that nation on native vernacular instruments, including the karnay (a long trumpet with a mouthpiece), accordion, reeds and percussion," he says. "As one struggles for a more familiar frame of reference, one thinks of the Chieftains, who have occasionally collaborated with American country and folk artists and of whom Jadoo is arguably the former Soviet-republic equivalent."

Tom Knapp spent some time on the business end of a trombone combo when Bonerama came to town. "A hard-driving rock band by any standard, Bonerama sets itself apart from the norm with its muscular brass front line. The band filled Long's Park with its sound Sunday evening during the second of 13 free concerts in the 47th annual Long's Park Summer Music Series," he says. "The band's fresh arrangements owe much to jazz -- which is only fitting, given Bonerama's New Orleans roots. But make no mistake, Bonerama is not to be confused with your typical Dixieland brass."

Neil Gaiman reunites with artist Charles Vess to bring Blueberry Girl -- from a poem Gaiman wrote for singer Tori Amos when she was pregnant -- to life. "I first heard this poem when Neil made an appearance at the Newberry Library in Chicago, doing readings while promoting American Gods. Then and now, it deserves every ounce of applause it received, and I'm glad he decided to share it with the rest of the world," Mary Harvey says.

"Sweet, funny and touching, with art that will truly blow you away, Blueberry Girl is a surefire instant and future classic that is right up there with Gaiman's The Wolves in the Walls and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. This is a wonderful book for any adult to give the child in their life."

Richelle Mead reveals another chapter of sex-demon Georgina Kincaid's life in Succubus Dreams. "Georgina is a complex character. What she is, a succubus, is often a direct contrast to what she wants and how she feels, making her a demon with a heart and a conscience. It creates some interesting problems and makes for very entertaining reading," Cherise Everhard says.

"It has been about five hours since I finished this book and closed its pages, and I find that the chapters, the characters and the events are still very much on my mind. I loved the previous books, but I am simply in awe of this one. It's a fantastic tale, yet not one thing that happens seems unrealistic. The presence of succubae, incubi, angels and various other immortals and demons all seem so real that I no longer feel like I am reading a fantasy -- or reading a book, for that matter. I get lost in the pages."

Talia Gryphon failed (in a major way) to impress our reviewer with Key to Conflict, the first book featuring Gillian Key, ParaDoc. "I read this book hoping I was just getting a bad first impression and that things would get better somewhere along the way. That didn't happen," Becky Kyle laments. "Though I won't get it, I really do want my money back. And the time it took to read it."

James Nelson concludes his five-book Revolution at Sea with All the Brave Fellows. "We've been with Biddlecomb as he made and lost his fortune, lost his ship, was pressed, mutinied, married and more. We've seen him outwit the more experienced military leaders of the British navy and prevail against daunting odds. We've felt the deck heave beneath our feet in foul weather, flew along the ocean when fair breezes blew and suffered the mind-numbing frustration of the doldrums. We've been shaken by the impact of cannonballs and cutlasses in our midst," Tom Knapp says. "It's been a rollicking series, much in the tradition of Aubrey and Hornblower, that brought the early American naval tradition to life. And All the Brave Fellows, set in 1777, brings it all to an end with a crash."

Mary Harvey says Life Sucks "is Ghostworld meets Clerks meets Interview With a Vampire. And it's really cool."

The graphic novel by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria and Warren Pleece should appeal to fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight, Mary adds. "Life Sucks tackles a subject I thought had been beaten to molecules -- vampires -- and injects it with a deeply ironic Gen-Y sensibility. More than just a pastiche of rehashed vampire stories, it's an interesting take on what being a vampire is really like: tedious, dull and restrictive, if you're not willing to be a sociopath or a bloodthirsty hunter."

Philip Smith's Walking Through Walls describes his father, an interior decorator to Latin American despots and psychic healer in the 1960s. "Reading Walking Through Walls makes you long for the old days, back when editors actually edited and suggested changes to their authors that strengthened books, kept them organized and centered around a theme," says Michael Scott Cain. "Walking Through Walls could certainly have benefited from good editing. There's a fine story lost in it."

Tom Knapp is devastated to see what has become of the Land of the Lost in the modern age of Will Ferrell. "Suffice it to say that the old television series, with its juvenile plots, mediocre acting and embarrassing special effects, looks like high art compared to the film. Ferrell, who can sometimes mine comedy gold from questionable source material, relies largely on poop, pee and boob jokes -- as well as an overlong scene featuring stoned-age narcotics -- to get chuckles," he says. "Land of the Lost has oodles of potential, even as pure camp -- but the film is a huge disappointment."

Cherise Everhard, a fan of the Southern Vampire/Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris, takes a look at the HBO adaptation, True Blood. "The show follows the books enough to be recognizable, but it more or less takes its own path, embellishes the story and makes changes where it sees fit," she says.

"Why they felt the need to mess with perfection, I will never know. The more I watched without comparing it to the books in the back of my mind, the more I enjoyed it. Movies are rarely as good as the books and that stands true for this one, but True Blood does its job of reeling you in and making you want to see what happens next."

You think we're done? Ha!! 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 more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)

13 June 2009

Television is democracy at its ugliest.
- Paddy Chayevsky

Ooops! Gotta run. Make up your own introduction and insert here.

Mat Walklate is feeling a little Cold in April. "His tools are different kinds of flutes, whistles and harmonicas, the uilleann pipes and his voice," Adolf Goriup says. "I really love this CD because of its wonderful musicians, amazing and creative arrangements and authentic sound. Manchester always has been and will be a centre of Irish culture in the midst of England."

Tom Bolton is ready and willing to perform When I Cross the River to hear him. "Tom Bolton's music is not unlike Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau. Instead of being conspicuously specific, his lyrics provide a beautiful ambiguity to the statement that exceeds any contemporaneous limitations. This provides a multifaceted approach to each of his songs, opening the listeners to their own interpretations. And while it's not a brain-wrenching process, there is a delicate complexity in this approach that Bolton seems to do effortlessly," says C. Nathan Coyle. "On top of this flexible meaning in the musical and lyrical structures, Bolton also has a very pleasant voice."

Eilen Jewell wades through a Sea of Tears for her music. "As I listened to Sea of Tears for the first time, I asked myself, could Letters from Sinners & Strangers possibly have been as good as I remembered it? I reviewed the latter -- with unrestrained enthusiasm -- in this space on 27 October 2007. I wrote that Eilen (pronounced ee-lin) Jewell 'has absorbed a range of roots style, integrating revival folk with jazz, rockabilly, honkytonk and blues, both downhome and uptown, in a startlingly wise and mature fusion.' Going back to the CD not long ago after having not listened to it in a while, I was if anything more taken with it. There is nothing quite like it: rural-accented music filtered through something like Peggy Lee's urban sensibility. Letters is indeed an extraordinarily good album," Jerome Clark says.

"Sea, on the other hand, is merely an ordinarily good album. And you've heard it before: it sounds like one of Lucinda Williams's more approachable -- i.e., less narcissistic -- efforts, except with occasional British Invasion accents."

Li'l Mo & the Monicats are On the Moon with their sound. "It would take a big stone where a heart ought to be not to like -- on general principles alone -- a band calling itself Li'l Mo & the Monicats. The name is ... well, just friendly. So, it turns out, is the music, which sounds ... um, Monicattish," Jerome says. "On the Moon is the band's first release for Bill Hunt's Boston-based Cow Island label, whose devotion to the recharging of the hillbilly-bop sound of five decades ago has so endeared itself to me that the mere sight of a package with the label's return address gives me confidence that the rest of the day will be bathed in golden light."

David Eagleman shares his thoughts on the unknown in Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. "A small book, the size of a typical mass-market paperback, Sum offers a huge amount of imagination and fun. It is inventive, original and provocative," says Michael Scott Cain. "The only problem with reading it is that you want everyone to read it so you can talk about the riches and possibilities that it contains."

Elizabeth Ann Scarborough is Channeling Cleopatra in this tale. "Scarborough is always fascinating, whether she's writing medieval, current day or futuristic fantasy," says Becky Kyle.

"In Channeling Cleopatra, she's created a world and a cast of characters that I can't fail to cheer for. The novel takes some interesting twists that leave you laughing -- and thinking about what truly makes up a person."

Meghan Brunner fails to rise From the Ashes in this tale. "From the Ashes has a lot of appeal for both rennies and mundanes. (If you have to ask, you probably are one of the latter; the definition loosely is folks who don't participate in Ren faires, sci-fi cons, etc.)," Becky says.

"Anyone who's ever attended a Ren faire or has been curious about one gets a good look at what goes on behind-the-scenes in Meghan Brunner's novel. In some ways, they get too good of a look. Brunner's anecdotes are interesting in relation to character development, but they bog the plot down."

Sarah Meador visits St. Louis in the days of Prohibiton in Tracy Butler's graphic novel, Lackadaisy: Vol. I. "Lackadaisy is funny. Much of it comes from Butler's dialogue; her brilliant banter somehow never strains belief," Sarah says. "Butler's cartoonish character designs allow for more expressiveness, but there are no attempts to simplify or skip details in this comic. The background settings are as detailed as a photograph. Cars, guns, plates of pancakes or cobbles in the road, all are drawn with a consistent accuracy that adds physical weight to the sometimes absurd adventures of the Lackadaisy gang."

Jason T. Berggren enumerates the 10 Things I Hate About Christianity. "Well, with a title like that, this book will surely get noticed, and I suppose that is the first rule of publishing. The 'anti' lobby will reach for it looking for justification, while the 'pro' groups will get it to check it out to try and refute it," Nicky Rossiter says.

"So, to avoid confusion, I'll state from the start the author is using rhetoric here. Like thousands who went before him, Jason T. Berggren preaches the message by looking initially at the obverse of his beliefs, then working through the arguments to turn that initial thought on its head."

Alice B. Fogel has insights to share in Strange Terrain: a Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader. "Often, texts about poetry make the art seem precious and deliberately obscure. They connote that the goal is a proper decoding so that readers come away from a poem with a headache and a 'who gives a damn' attitude," Michael Scott Cain opines. "Instead, she tries to get at poetry by discussing the way the poem looks on the page, sound values and images, what poetry can make you feel as well as what it can make you think. It's a valuable approach and the discussion is both informative and fun."

Mitzi Szereto pulls together The New Black Lace Book of Women's Sexual Fantasies, and Paul de Bruijn takes a peek. "Given that there is a wide range of fantasies covered, there will be parts of the book that will be disturbing or disgusting to some people. Which stories will do it will vary from reader to reader, and the best thing to do is to move on to one more to your liking," he says. "It is the range that is the book's strength, the variety in tone and desires of the women who chose to share a part of what they want to have -- whether it was something they wanted to experience again, to try for the first time or expect never have at all."

Molly Ebert gets a little philosophical about Hellboy II: The Golden Army. "When watching a film, no matter how grandiose or minute, there are certain distinctions that must be consciously made in one's mind. In the case of films that are based on outside pieces of literature, one must remember that you are watching a movie. The concern must not lie with what source the film stemmed from but with the finished product. I made this distinction while discussing Hellboy II: The Golden Army with a friend who had accompanied me to see it, and he was annoyed, downright taken aback, to hear it," she says.

"However, allow me to make my case; I am, after all, writing a film review and not a comic-book review. If I dared to blur that distinction I would be instigating a turf war between comic-book critics and movie critics, and haven't we learned that lesson from West Side Story? It is best I stick with focusing solely on the film itself."

Karen Elkins says Once Bitten -- pardon the pun -- doesn't suck. "Some vampire movies are required viewing, and some are just a passable way to pass some time. Once Bitten falls among the latter," she says. "Once Bitten does not break any new ground, but it is an enjoyable movie with a most pleasant soundtrack. The humor is funny without becoming corny or kooky. It is a positive addition to any horror collection."

You think we're done? Ha!! 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 more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)

6 June 2009

There is real magic in enthusiasm.
It spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment.
- Norman Vincent Peale

It's raining. Again. I wish for dry. But yes, Ottawa was lovely, thanks for asking!

J Shogren bears a branch of American Holly to share. "Split the difference between Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, and while you won't have everything you need to know about J Shogren (no period after the initial, I gather), you will have at least a place to start," Jerome Clark says.

"In some ways Shogren's recording is a demanding one, not always suited to casual listening. At 17 cuts this is, in my estimation anyway, three or four too long. Still, even the occasional slow patch rewards the patient pilgrim, and it helps if you keep in mind that Shogren is far more the professor than the trapper. His vision of a frontier world is a metaphysical, not a physical, one, where the familiar always manages to stay just out of focus. Shogren takes a host of recognizable images and influences and turns them deeply strange."

Pathway must be performing Somewhere Tonight. "It wasn't all that long ago -- or anyway, it feels that way to me -- that nearly all bluegrass bands were named So-and-So and the geographical-feature (mountain, valley, river) or political-unit (state, county, town) boys. It was rock bands, at least after the mid-1960s, that claimed the one-word singular names. These days, though, bluegrass outfits can call themselves just about anything that pleases them. Such as, in the present instance, Pathway," Jerome says.

"Not to fear; the distance between Pathway and Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys -- masters of smooth, confident, melodic traditional 'grass in whose pathway Pathway walks -- is as short as any distance between two points can be. The band hails from the musically affluent Mount Airy, North Carolina (hometown to Andy Griffith and the inspiration for Mayberry) and is signed to the reliable bluegrass/oldtime label Mountain Roads. You'd think that with a combination like that, failure would not be an option, and you'd be right."

Gino Foti finds his Sphere of Influence among the realms of jazz and world music. "The greatest strength of Sphere of Influence is the shared imagery and inter-connected themes that run through each arc, and there is only one piece that is overloaded with imagery," Paul de Bruijn says. "The results of Gino Foti's efforts are wondrous and almost every piece is very good indeed."

Darren Deicide takes the blues on a trip through the nine planes of rock on The Jersey Devil is Here. "Deicide delivers a sound that reaches from blues-rock and punkish rock 'n' roll to psycho-rock and further on to the wildest punk. The music is dominated by the sound of his guitar and voice, the rapid pace of punk and the hypnotic rhythms of psycho rock," Adolf Goriup says. "The Jersey Devil is Here isn't for blues purists, for sure, but those who like to see blues stretched in new directions might want to give this a try."

Tate Hallaway is back with more from Garnet Lacey in Dead If I Do, the fourth in the popular series. "Magic and hilarity abound in this latest story," Cherise Everhard says. "Tate Hallway continues her trend of conjuring a fantastic read filled with colorful characters, giggles and just enough hocus pocus to make it impossible to set down. The minute I finish a Garnet Lacey story I am already looking forward to the next one."

Richelle Mead brings Georgina Kincaid back into circulation with Succubus On Top. "After reading the first book in the series, Succubus Blues, I wasn't sure where this one would head. I really enjoyed the first book and this one, I believe, exceeded that one in greatness," Cherise says.

"Like the last book, there is a gripping mystery and plenty of succubus lovin'. Mixed in with all the heat is a good dose of hilarity and an abundance of show-stealing side characters. I found myself tearing up a few times as I found this book, which is surprisingly full of emotion and very touching."

Bruce R. Cook has a case of Philippine Fever in this mystery surrounding the death of a cock-fighting businessman who bought and sold Chinese-made weapons on the side. "Philippine Fever is a murder-mystery full of intrigue, despair, violence and more death than just the original victim," Wil Owen reports. "This book is not for the squeamish -- some of the scenes are very graphic. And if you don't like reading violent stories that also contain sex, cross-dressing or more references to film-noir than your normal person could keep up with, this might not be your cup of tea. However, I found the story captivating enough to read it fairly quickly."

Becky Kyle fills in the blanks in the Star Trek graphic novel Countdown, which bridges the gap between the old future and the new original crew. "David Messina's illustrations are excellent. The science -- well, not so," she says. "But, having first seen the film I am grateful to have an explanation for everything that happened in between."

Penny Warner is on the case with The Official Nancy Drew Handbook. "Nancy Drew has been an institution in the United States since the early 20th century, when Grosset & Dunlap began publishing the adventures of the titian-haired girl detective and her chums Bess and George. Many is the young woman who wanted to grow up just like Nancy. Now, with Penny Warner's guidebook (subtitled Skills, Tips & Life Lessons From Everyone's Favorite Girl Detective), they can," says Laurie Thayer.

"The book is an odd mixture of the truly helpful and the extremely tongue-in-cheek."

Phil Mundt conducts A Scientific Search for Religious Truth, but not to our reviewer's satisfaction. "I wanted to review A Scientific Search for Religious Truth because I found its title promising. Dr. Phil Mundt's objective was a worthy one; his experience and Stanford Ph.D. in geology make him a credible author, and he has clearly put a great deal of effort and energy into the project. An objective review of the scientific evidence for and against religious belief would be welcome indeed in the midst of today's highly politicized and emotional arguments between atheists who see religion as the source of all evil and proponents of intelligent design who can't imagine a moral order without a religious basis," Ron Bierman says.

"Unfortunately, A Scientific Search for Religious Truth doesn't live up to its title. It would have been more accurate to call it A Christian Rationalizes His Beliefs."

Phoebe Damrosch gets out of the kitchen and into the dining room in Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter. "Phoebe Damrosch is an impeccably educated English major who fancied herself an artist and loathed the thought of taking a job as a drone in a publishing industry to ensure a steady paycheck. ... When she failed to find solid work utilizing her degree, Damrosch joined a hellish underground bootcamp to score a job in one of New York's most elite restaurants," Jessica Lux-Baumann says. "Service Included is a secret window into the world of ultra-high-end hospitality, and a foodie's delight. It is not, however, an 'eavesdropping' tale. Damrosch would have done well to title her memoir more accurately, because it stands on its own as a glimpse inside an unusual and elite profession."

Molly Ebert joins our review staff today with a review of The Brave One. "The script isn't necessarily groundbreaking and please don't expect too many oohs and ahhs from the audience around you, but The Brave One brings certain intensely beautiful and thought-provoking elements to the screen," she says. "When a film that seems underrated from the word 'go' surprises your set expectations, it is always worth sitting down and enjoying the attempt at raising the bar just a little bit higher."

Karen Elkins, meanwhile, warns horror fans to avoid at all costs The Lair of the White Worm. "The Lair of the White Worm is based on a Bram Stoker novel, but do not expect this vampire movie to be in the same league as Dracula. This one is just plain weird!" she exclaims. "The Lair of the White Worm is a movie to never see. You will not have missed a thing."

You think we're done? Ha!! 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 more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)

30 May 2009

Why does man create? Is it man's purpose on earth to express himself, to bring form to thought, and to discover meaning in experience? Or is it just something to do when he's bored?
- Bill Watterson

It was 10 years ago, today....

By golly, it's hard to believe that Rambles.NET is 10 years old. But here we are, a decade older, perhaps no wiser at all, but certainly we've all seen a lot of books, CDs and movies pass by our doors in the meantime. Whew! So, who out there has been with us since the beginning?? Let me tell you, the early days of this site were -- well, ambitious to say the least, although disorganized and brimming with good intentions if not a concrete plan. That first edition was very short, simply announcing the site's painful birth (we tore ourselves free of the womb of another site with whom we had creative and editorial differences; enough said on that matter) with more than 200 reviews already up for your perusal in the archives as well as a handful of new material (such as Natalie MacMaster's CD My Roots are Showing, Closer to Paradise by the Barra MacNeils and Mill Monroe's Live from Mountain Stage.

We were back the next day with seven more reviews, and another six the day after that. It would be some time before we worked out the weekly schedule we stick to (for the most part) today.

The design of this website has been rethought and reworked on several occasions. The team producing this site has changed a lot over 10 years, but I'm pleased to say a few of the original lineup still remain active. Besides Tom Knapp, the founder and editor of Rambles.NET, you'll still find the likes of Laurie Thayer, Donna Scanlon and Chet Williamson knocking around the place. And, while others of that initial team have moved on to other things, Rambles.NET has been graced with the writing talents of 235 people, of disparate ages, nationalities and certainly opinions, to date. Some folks have written just a few things here and there, while others -- particularly Jerome Clark, Alicia Karen Elkins, Daniel Jolley, Tom Knapp, Sarah Meador, Wil Owen, Nicky Rossiter, Donna Scanlon and Laurie Thayer -- each produced hundreds of reviews for our readers.

What that means for you, our readers, is a constantly growing collection of reviews, now totaling more than 12,500, which we hope will help guide and enhance your exploration of the rich and varied cultural arts. You may not always agree with us, but we hope we at least give you something to consider when making your selections.

So, where do we go from here? As always, onward and upward. We'll be here; we hope you keep coming back to read what we have to say. Cheers!

Patrick Feeney ranges near and far, old and new on This is Me. "Opening with the lovely track 'To Be a Child Again,' Feeney sets a tone and a sound that he will sustain through all 14 tracks," Nicky Rossiter says. "I was particularly impressed by his version of Ralph McTell's 'The Irish Girl.' This is a wonderful song from a great writer that now has a great version on offer."

Jesse Winchester gets gassed up at the Love Filling Station. "Station will please Winchester fans and even has a few surprises for them," Jerry Clark says.

"Notwithstanding the presence of bluegrass performers, bluegrass is not a presence here. But just about every other genre of American vernacular music -- well, not rock -- can be heard carrying Winchester's always supremely hummable tunes."

Dale Watson fuels up for The Truckin' Sessions, Vol. 2. "Trucking anthems were the end of the road for the venerable folk tradition of occupational songs. Their lineage stretched back to the songs of sailors, soldiers, miners, lumberjacks, factory and mill workers, cowboys, farmers, ramblers and gamblers, even convicts and criminals, who put to melody their thoughts on jobs worth loving or loathing. I refer to trucking songs in the past tense because, while a staple of popular country music from the 1940s into the 1970s, they have long since faded into radio silence," Jerome says.

"If anybody is going to revive them, it's honkytonk classicist Dale Watson, a talented singer and songwriter steeped in the styles of Ray Price, Merle Haggard, George Jones and others who shaped what is now called 'traditional country music' -- in other words, the finest of what got played on 1960s country radio, which hadn't yet forgotten the previous generation's giants: Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells and Lefty Frizzell."

Big Bob Young may have reason to believe the blues is a Hard Way to Make a Dollar. "In his 50-plus years on this planet, Big Bob Young has been a member of the armed forces, mechanic, college student, farrier, telegram singer and clown, along with other occupations. He has seen a couple of marriages dissolve and has outlived a wife. He has raised four children," says Michael Scott Cain. "On all of his stops along the way, he has been a musician and a songwriter. Big Bob Young has seen some living and has learned his lessons. And now, comfortably settled into middle-life, he has cut this CD."

Bob Stewart gathers together some of his finer jazz works for Did I Remember. "The unifying theme is romance, and the songs are wonderful classics written by Ellington, Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Jobim and a dozen other fine, if less celebrated composers," Ron Bierman says. "Older folks will be familiar with the entire program and love it. Thanks to Bob Stewart, some younger listeners unfamiliar with the tunes may join the seniors in wondering why they don't write them like that anymore."

Virginia MacIsaac sparks a few memories of Celtic Colours 2008 and the rebirth of Cape Breton fiddle traditions with her recollections of the Salute to the Cape Breton Fiddler, a feature of the latest international music festival. "This was an afternoon of reminiscing, learning and sharing, depending on your age," she says. "It's something that many people wanted to revisit and the multi-media format maintained interest and covered a lot of ground. It was a special way to show the roots of music development in Cape Breton over the last 30 years, and not least of all, aspects of Celtic Colours itself."

Terry James has captured Daniel Jolley's attention with this one. "I daresay The Rapture Dialogues: Dark Dimension is one of the most thought-provoking novels I have read in quite some time," he says. "In these pages, Terry James has done a remarkable job of uniting science fiction, historical fact and Biblical prophecy in such a way that just about everyone can enjoy this book in equal measure: atheists and Christians, UFO debunkers and ufologists, conspiracy theorists and basically anyone who enjoys an exciting, well-told story."

Alan Dean Foster goes full thrusters for the novelization of Star Trek. "Foster is one of my favorite writers. He's got a strong flair for describing details and making characters come to life," Becky Kyle says. "Is the book better than the movie? No. Unquestionably not. You've got to see this film to really capture the story as it should be told."

Suzy McKee Charnas unravels The Vampire Tapestry for a different sort of bloodsucker novel. "Weyland is not your typical vampire in some ways, but for all of that he is unmistakably a vampire," Paul de Bruijn remarks. "The portion of his life explored in The Vampire Tapestry is well told, and for the moment he sits as my favourite vampire."

James Nelson sails again into the Revolution at Sea with Lords of the Ocean. "Lords of the Ocean ... is packed with blood-pounding adventure and fantastic characters from the days of infancy for the United States," Tom Knapp says.

"The naval side of the American Revolution has long been overlooked in favor of land-based campaigns like those at Trenton, Valley Forge and Yorktowne. Nelson ensures that the first American navy has its day in the sun, and Isaac Biddlecomb -- whose adventures in this book are based loosely on those of real-life Capt. Lambert Wickes -- is an excellent centerpiece for the tale. Bold, cunning and a natural-born seaman, Biddlecomb has enough flaws -- including overconfidence and greed -- to keep his character grounded."

Matt Bronleewe welcomes readers into the House of Wolves. "I have read several books in the Dan Brown, Da Vinci Code vein. I would put House of Wolves right in the middle of the pack," Wil Owen says. "It has some original chase scenes, puzzles to figure out and religious mysteries to discover. But I've followed the same formula enough times now that it just doesn't seem fresh to me any more. Did I enjoy House of Wolves? Yes. Was I wowed by it? No."

Mary Harvey is back with a look at volume two of Essex County: Ghost Stories. "The second installment in the Essex County trilogy opens with the same winning formula, to increasingly wonderful returns," she says. "Like Tales from the Farm, Ghost Stories touches on the theme of how people, their lives interrupted by tragedy and bad choices, suddenly find the course of their lives diverted into unfamiliar landscapes. It is a bittersweet, achingly honest view of one man's struggle to find, or more accurately, relocate, his place in life."

Tom Knapp isn't too sure about The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln. "The interesting thing here is that the book is in many ways more relevant now, in 2009, than it was when it was first published in 1998. The discussion of constitutional rights, the disappearance of civil liberties and the ease with which a leader can hoodwink his followers all make one suspect that writer Scott McCloud somehow knew the 2000-2008 administration years were coming," he says. "Even so, it's just not a very good book. Particularly given the horrible art, I just can't recommend it."

E.J. Wagner explores The Science of Sherlock Holmes. "Most people will agree that Sherlock Holmes is the greatest detective who never lived. His cool, rational intellect, his formidable powers of observation and his encyclopedic knowledge of the sciences allow him to solve crimes that confound lesser men," says Laurie Thayer. "Each of the book's 13 chapters tackles one discipline, from autopsies to ballistics to criminal psychology, discussing Victorian state-of-the-art criminology. Using both the Sherlock Holmes canon and famous cases of the time, Wagner shows how the science either helped or hindered the investigators."

Kerry Max Cook puts his history to paper in Chasing Justice: My Story of Freeing Myself After Two Decades on Death Row for a Crime I Didn't Commit. "Cook fought for a full two decades for his freedom, through three outrageous trials, with not a penny to his name. While the major Dallas newspaper was decrying the railroading of an innocent man, he was convicted again and again and again," Jessica Lux-Baumann says. "Cook's remarkable story is a damning indictment of the death penalty and the Texas justice system."

John Van Balen provides the resources in the Great Plains Indian Illustration Index. "Van Balen is a retired reference librarian who noted that library catalogues do not provide much description of the contents of Native American books," says Karen Elkins. "There is really no way to locate photographs and illustrations except to pull each book and look for yourself. In response to this shortcoming, he created the Great Plains Indian Illustration Index, which allows researchers to quickly locate the illustrations they need."

Michael Scott Cain hangs Around with director David Spaltro. "A young film school grad from New Jersey, he has written, financed (through credit cards) and directed his first feature, Around, a film about the life and hard times of a young film school student from New Jersey. If the film gets picked up by a distributor, he can pay his bills and will be OK. If it doesn't, he goes into bankruptcy," Michael says.

"Along with his determination to get his film made, you also have to admire Spaltro's film-making. His composition is good and he gets fine performances from his cast. The film is competently made. If there's a problem, it's on a script level."

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 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,000 reviews!)

23 May 2009

What may seem depressing or even tragic to one person may seem like an absolute scream to another person, especially if he has had between four and seven beers.
- Dave Barry

Ordinarily, I might have something witty or clever to say. Not today.

Julie Felix fans may find something new in Scarborough Fair. "Purists, beware: this is Julie Felix in the 21st century. Music lovers, be aware: this is Julie Felix better than ever," Nicky Rossiter says. "Felix was the female voice of the protest song in the 1960s. Although born in America, her greatest influence was in the UK and Europe, where her interpretation of the Bob Dylan canon brought a melodious voice to the startling lyric. ... True to form, this CD contains a number of Dylan songs, but they are part of a brilliant eclectic mix that cannot fail to satisfy older listeners as well as those only discovering the magic of Julie Felix."

Eric Brace & Peter Cooper are playing music together, but You Don't Have to Like Them Both. "Eric Brace and Peter Cooper aren't the Everly or the Delmore or the Louvin Brothers, and they're not even siblings. Nor, one should add, are they imitators of any of the just-mentioned," Jerome Clark says.

"But Brace & Cooper have taken lessons from the masters, using them to fashion their own country-flavored folk sound. ... Brace & Cooper are distinctive vocalists and exceptional harmony singers. Smooth in the best sense, their approach recalls what Emmylou Harris once sounded like, before her music evolved from country and folk roots to urban folk-rock. The formula is hardly unfamiliar -- solid songs made of strong lyrics and hummable melodies, performed on acoustic guitars, and backed by sympathetic accompanying players -- but the result is pleasing indeed."

Jerome Clark focuses his attention on a pair of new bluegrass offerings: Lonely Street by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and Spring Creek's Way Up on a Mountain.

"As one who's been listening to bluegrass most of his life, I never cease to marvel at the genre's durability, its way of both reinventing and reaffirming tradition while holding an audience just big enough to keep its practitioners, if not in wealth, at least in business," Jerome says. "As a style, bluegrass (which dates from the latter 1940s) is not exactly ancient, but it distantly echoes the sound of 19th-century rural string bands, as filtered through jazz, blues, Southern hymns and spirituals, 1950s country music and the 1960s folk revival. For all practical purposes it is the invention of Bill Monroe (1911-1996), truly a benefactor to humanity."

The Steve Davis Quartet, with Larry Willis, is playing Alone Together on this jazz CD. "Strong lineup! Willis is the senior member, having appeared on more than 300 recordings. Although he is primarily a jazz player, his extraordinary versatility has him in demand for Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, pop and most anything else you can think of," Ron Bierman says. "It's a good group. Trombone fans will want this one for sure."

Hannah Tinti fingers The Good Thief in this work of historical fiction. "Author Hannah Tinti has previously edited a magazine and wrote one other book, a collection of short stories called Animal Crackers. Still, despite this unspectacular resume, she clearly knows how to write. She had me from the first page and never lost my attention. The characters are realistic, three-dimensional and quite colorful," Chris McCallister raves. "Is there such a thing as a perfect novel? I think that standards differ too much for anyone to ever agree that a book is perfect. The Good Thief comes close."

Jim Butcher's Dresden Files has caught the eye of Tom Knapp, who here offers his thoughts on the third book in the long-running occult series, The Dresden Files #3: Grave Peril.

"Harry Dresden, a wizard for hire in downtown Chicago, has plenty to deal with right from the start, beginning with a restless ghost that wants to snuff the lives of newborn babies. But ghosts are the least of Harry's worries; before this book wraps up, he mixes it up with a frightening array of demons, vampires, spectral traps, dead wizards, possessed bodies and possessive sidhe," he says. "Butcher has a keen grasp of supernatural suspense, and he keeps his readers turning pages with white-knuckled intensity. His characters will grab you, and Dresden himself is the epitome of the flawed hero, brave despite his fears and often wracked by guilt over his failures and poor choices."

Georgette Heyer finds a Lady of Quality in this recent literary excursion. "Heyer throws in a dash of destiny," Whitney Mallenby says. "The circumstances that bring the leads together requires a fairly large portion of this novel, so this extra element enables Heyer to quicken the pacing and adds to the urgency of resolving this provoking attachment."

Mark Allen eyes a new slant on superheroes in The Mighty. "What if Superman, besides being a well-known superhero, was also a merchandising institution? (In his world, not ours.) And, what if, from toy lines, comic books, clothing lines, video games, etc., he funded his own national law-enforcement agency? Well, wonder no more, because that's the premise in DC Comics' The Mighty," he says. "The Mighty is a well-executed sequential tale suited for adults who enjoy action, drama and mystery. Due to some violent imagery and strong language, it is not recommended for younger readers."

Tom Knapp fears the Neozoic failed to fulfill its destiny. "Neozoic poses interesting questions. What if the asteroid that supposedly caused the extinction of the dinosaurs in Earth's history had instead collided with the moon? Would the continued existence of giant, flesh-eating lizards have altered the evolution of mammals ... particularly of humans?" he asks. "Well, of course it would have. And the society described in Neozoic is an inspired stage for this story by Paul Ens to unfold."

Irish healer Lorna Byrne sees angels, and she shares her thoughts on the matter in Angels in My Hair. "If she is to be believed, we are all surrounded by angels all of the time, day and night, inside and outside, wherever we are and whatever we're doing," Michael Scott Cain reports. "The world of angels -- which, in an earlier time in Ireland, would probably be described as the world of little people or leprechauns -- is described in detail, giving us a view of the whole hierarchy of the other world. It's a comforting view and occasionally dramatic, as in the scenes where Byrne's angels protect her from the violence that swept through Ireland in the 1990s. Mostly, though, it comes across as mundane, everyday, nothing out of the ordinary."

Cherise Everhard spends a little downtime In Bruges. "After hearing so many wonderful things about this film I was absolutely prepared to be let down. Movies rarely live up to the hype for me, but I am happy to say this one did -- and then some," she says. "In Bruges had me laughing out loud, hard and repeatedly, as the levels of political incorrectness mounted and Ray and Ken played off each other with hilarious results. It had me sobbing big ugly girly tears as the emotion that pours from Ray -- his guilt, his sadness -- is absolutely palpable and heartbreaking. This movie had me gasping at the violence, on the edge of my seat and on an emotional rollercoaster from one minute to the next. It was great."

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!)

16 May 2009

Time is a drug. Too much of it kills you.
- Terry Pratchett

It's a beautiful day in this neck of the woods. Hope you're enjoying yourself, wherever you are!

The good folks at Greentrax take us Far, Far From Ypres in a CD collecting music inspired by long days of World War I.

"The Great War from 1914 to 1918 was one of the most brutal ever," Nicky Rossiter says. "Yet it has probably inspired more music than any war before or since. That war has borne a wide-ranging musical legacy, and the Greentrax label is to be congratulated on producing this double CD compilation. It is fitting that the music of and about the World War I era should be brought together now. At this point in time few if any of those who took part in that war are alive, and there might be a very real danger of losing the spirit that inspired the early volunteers to the conflagration.

Jonathan Byrd conjures memories of the late Townes Van Zandt with The Law & the Lonesome. "Though not Byrd's first album, The Law & the Lonesome is the first to come my way, and from the evidence here presented, I hope to hear more. In common with Van Zandt's best work, Byrd's blends ballad, blues and literary influences into moody storytelling and reflection -- and, in this instance, consistent excellence," Jerome Clark says.

"The melodies often feel as incorporeal as ghosts, and as haunting and haunted. The narratives are typically set in bleak desert and prairie scenes and along lost highways and lawless borders. While in lesser hands it could, none of this feels less than fully imagined."

Next, Jerome casts a scholarly eye upon a pair of new blues CDs, Mary Flower's Bridges and Introducing... by Sunny & Her Joy Boys.

"Two talented women -- one a vocalist, the other a singer-guitarist -- turn their rich musical imaginations to styles that flourished in the early to mid-20th century. Their tastes overlap at points, since blues and jazz color American music (if in widely varying tints), but their geographical and cultural references are not quite the same," he says. "What makes Flower and Bridges outstanding, though, is the exemplary acoustic-guitar picking."

Webb Wilder is seeking a few More Like Me in his quest for music. "If you have not yet discovered Webb Wilder, More Like Me will show you the full range of the man's music as well as his emotions and attitude. For all of his humor, lightheartedness and self-effacing laughing at himself, Wilder just simply loves all forms of roots music and loves to play it," says Michael Scott Cain. "You'll love to listen."

Greg Chako, Christy Smith & Mark DeRose use jazz to Paint a Picture, Tell a Story and, of course, make music. "The album is a great sample of modern jazz, featuring some of the best musicians who work in Asia," Adolf Goriup says. "Chako is a fine guitar player and a great composer. I really love this CD."

David S. Brody ponders the possible discovery of America by the Scots a full century before Columbus wandered into that neck of the ocean in Templars at the Newport Tower, the first book of the Cabal of the Westford Knight series. "Brody doesn't set the action-genre world on fire with his chase scenes, nor does he build much in the way of suspense about whether good will triumph over not-so-good, but he delivers an intellectually challenging and rewarding yarn with good travel tips and a genuinely satisfying romance thrown in, to boot," Gary Cramer says.

"The plot is perhaps hampered by a few too many villains obfuscating the trail of evidence, a few too many supporting characters phoning in timely historical hints just when they are needed, and a few too many 'off-screen' deaths instead of 'on-screen' moments of tension to keep our heroes motivated in their mission, yet Cabal maintains a pace that well serves the goal of laying out the findings and theories of various real-world researchers in a rational manner, despite the fictional milieu."

H. Terrell Griffin digs up a mystery on Blood Island. "Blood Island is a sort of contradiction -- in a nice way," Nicky Rossiter says. "The novel harkens back to the old days of the hard-man private eye as personified by Chandler and the like. But author H. Terrell Griffin brings the characters right up to the 21st century. Even in this modern age, Griffin writes at the pace and dedication of the people who weaned us on to the maverick who does more than the authorities ever seem able to do."

Bill Pronzini places his Nameless Detective in the path of Savages. "Bill Pronzini's writing is always crisp and action-packed, and Savages is another example of that. I have not read all of his Nameless Detective novels, nor have I been reading them in order, but this is the first one I have read with the multiple storylines and protagonists. He handles it well, and the reader really gets two good mysteries, as well as the personal subplots," Chris McCallister says. "It is definitely a good mystery-detective story, with just enough personal side-story to make every character seem quite real."

Mark Allen is smitten with the writing in Anne Steelyard: The Garden of Emptiness, Act One: An Honorary Man. "Anne Steelyard: The Garden of Emptiness is a graphic novel written by Barbara Hambly. In it, she treats readers to a sweeping epic, the quality of which hardly ever makes it to the big screen, much less your local comics shop," he says. "Encased in a beautifully painted (and admittedly cheesecake) cover by Glen Orbik, Anne Steelyard waits to be discovered by all but the youngest comics fans."

B. Jill Carroll delves into one of the world's hot topics of religion with A Dialog of Civilizations: Gulen's Islamic Ideals & Humanistic Discourse. "The book's author has a Ph.D. in religious studies and is an associate director of the Boniuk Center for the Study & Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University, where she also teaches," Ron Bierman says. "Since Muslim extremism is in total conflict with the purpose of the Boniuk Center, it is not hard to see why Carroll would be interested in Gulen's views. Gulen and the Center are in complete agreement on the importance of civilized discussion between those with differing beliefs, and Carroll has based her book on the idea of a dialogue between Gulen and selected representatives of non-Islamic thinking. Disagreeing with authors such as Huffington and Lewis, she is out to demonstrate that Islamic views have much in common with those of other cultures."

Tom Knapp viewed Star Trek with no small amount of trepidation. "I'm one of those old-time fans. I grew up on episodes of Star Trek in syndication. I cheered the return of the original cast to the movies. I followed closely -- at times more with a sense of loyalty than enthusiasm -- the various series set within the Next Generation, and I even stepped back in time to the early days of Enterprise," he says. "But when Hollywood chatter turned to rebooting the saga from the start, placing new actors in the roles of Kirk, Spock and the rest of the crew from the original series, I balked. I shuddered. I'm not sure, but I may have even gnashed my teeth and tore my hair, just a little."

"But I will gladly, exuberantly admit that director J.J. Abrams and the cast and crew of this new Star Trek -- the first feature film to go just by that name -- have given me no choice but to change my mind. ... The film is a joy to watch."

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!)

9 May 2009

It took me 15 years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous.
- Robert Benchley

There is a giant ball of luminescence in the sky today. I don't know what it is, but I am scared. I cannot recall seeing such a thing before; some people say it's just a collection of burning plasma, but that seems unlikely. I fear it is the end of time. ... But heck, it is warm outside for a change, and the rain has stopped. That's gotta be worth something.

The McCalmans are Coming Home with 14 top-class tracks. "The McCalmans are never far from a bit of fun, but at the same time they reflect on wider issues," Nicky Rossiter says.

Barbara J. Hunt "believes that humankind is finally waking up, getting beyond its narcissistic obsession with self and beginning to recognize that we are all one, we are a unity, sharing a life experience in a universe that is expanding like a loaf of raisin bread," says Michael Scott Cain. "To my mind, Play My Heart is an album best listened to in pieces. Listen to it straight through and the intensity gets to be a little much."

Jerome Clark takes a gander at Swinging from the Chains of Love by Blackie & the Rodeo Kings and Sweet As the Grain by the John Henrys.

"One is tempted to hear Blackie & the Rodeo Kings (known to themselves and fans as BARK) and the John Henrys as Canadian answers to The Band, except that in its classic line-up the last-named was fourth-fifths Canadian," Jerome comments. "It's further worth noting, though, that Swinging from the Chains of Love -- a retrospective on BARK's career from the mid-1990s to the present -- shares two cuts with the last Band album (Jericho, a neglected gem cut in 1985, released in 1993 and led by three of the original members) as well as a bandmate, the late pianist Richard Bell."

Catman Cohen is back for more with The Catman Chronicles 2: How I Want to Live. "Stylistically, it builds on what was done in the first volume, but all too often too many different styles of music are shoe-horned into one song," says Paul de Bruijn. "Once again, you get something different with Catman Cohen, but the songs at times lose cohesion by virtue to trying to do too many things."

Mitch Kashmar comes to you Live at Labatt. "West Coast harmonica player Mitch Kashmar has been making a name for himself with his own albums and his appearances with rock and blues giants. His outfits have served as the backing band for such artists as Lowell Fulson, Albert Collins and Big Joe Turner, among others. He served in the most recent incarnation of the '70s soul band War. While still young, he's been well-schooled and, as this live set shows, knows what he's doing," Michael Scott Cain says. "He mixes songs and styles, blending together a package that both satisfies your expectations even as it challenges them."

Corinne Smith has a lot of memories from a 1990 concert in Pennsylvania featuring Crosby Stills & Nash with the Grateful Dead. She compares that experience to an April performance in Massachusetts by The Dead, which is keeping Jerry Garcia's music alive.

"It may sound trite to say that a Dead performance is not a concert, it's an experience; but you can't deny that truth," she says. "Once the music starts, it's not just the notes that hit us. It's the whole spirit and energy of the place, generated in a large part by the audience: us and the people around us. The arena is filled with a sweet smoky air: a mix of pot and patchouli clouds that seem to collide, then blend into one overwhelming aroma as the evening progresses. (It would take at least a week for me not to remember it each time I took a breath. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)"

Raymond Benson pays a visit to the Dark Side of the Morgue in this rock 'n' roll mystery. "In this novel, Spike Berenger is a former musician and rock 'n' roll fiend who now runs Rockin' Security, a security agency that specializes in serving the music industry and occasionally does private-eye work. When someone begins killing off the musicians who played in bands in Chicago's progressive-rock scene, Berenger and his partner, Suzanne Prescott, fly from in New York City to investigate," says Michael Scott Cain. "If you're passionate about music -- if you're the type who enjoys debating whether the original title of the album was Dark Side of the Moon or The Dark Side of the Moon -- and you like mysteries, you're going to enjoy Dark Side of the Morgue."

James Nelson brings his guns to bear on The Continental Risque. "As if the British aren't bad enough. Isaac Biddlecomb, newly commissioned a captain in the fledgling navy of the United Colonies, must suffer both the boorish conversation and petulant behavior of his new first officer, Lt. Roger Tottenhill, and the subversive, below-deck actions of cutthroat seaman Amos Hackett," Tom Knapp says.

"Although The Continental Risque, the third book in James L. Nelson's excellent Revolution at Sea saga, includes the first large-scale invasion by the American fleet against a British holding, this is probably the least exciting volume in the series so far. The problem isn't the level of adventure -- once it gets going -- or the further development of Nelson's intriguing cast. Rather, Risque unfolds far too slowly."

Richard Ford marks Independence Day with the return of his Sportswriter protagonist, Frank. "It doesn't sound like a whole lot is going on here. And, regrettably, some readers will go on believing that," says Eric Hughes. "But that's exactly what these books are about. They're an analysis of the human condition. Of life's oddities and its changes -- for the good and the bad. Here, Ford captures so many special life moments through his colorful, detailed language."

The story here is just Too Cool to Be Forgotten, Mary Harvey says. "The author of Box Office Poison and Tricked returns with a shorter-but-sweeter offering, Too Cool to Be Forgotten, a story about returning to the past to deal with some messy baggage," she explains. "While it does indeed make generous use of the by-now-familiar theme of traveling back in time to the days of high school, it is not just about time travel, nor is it Peggy Sue Meets Thank You for Smoking. TCTBF manages to hold on to its integrity with a smart and surprisingly deep story that's more about making amends than it is about abusing overused, cliched plot lines."

Sally O. Lee gives readers something different with The Rabbit & the Snowman. "This is a children's book, aimed at ages 4 through 8. It is a simple tale, with colorful illustrations that are perfect for younger children, as they are rich, yet not too complex or confusing at all," Chris McCallister says. "I found no weaknesses in this book and recommend it without reservation."

Miles O'Dometer passes some time during the Year of the Dog. "Year of the Dog is the latest work from writer-director Mike White, who's probably best known to film audiences as the substitute teacher Mr. Schneebly in School of Rock," Miles says. "Dog also reveals White's observant visual style. The characters are often shot head-on, giving the film a very flat feel, but also focusing your attention on what they say -- and on their awkwardness. At the same time, the camera catches both canines and their masters at their most absurd moments. ... So watch it if you dare -- and if you want to see very funny characters, played by some very talented performers, get into and out of some very outlandish situations."

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!)

2 May 2009

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

Wanna stop by our yard sale today? It looks like rain ... but the wife made cupcakes!!

Jeana Leslie & Siobhan Miller earn high praise with In a Bleeze. "Winners of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award for 2008, Orkney lass Jeana Leslie provides fiddle, piano and vocals while Siobhan Miller, hailing from Midlothian, offers some top-class singing on their new recording from Greentrax," Nicky Rossiter says. "Showing a love of tradition, an appreciation of new writing and a talent for composing and writing, the album of 13 songs is an eclectic mix."

Bill Evans & Megan Lynch take a folk approach to the banjo on Let's Do Something.... "The banjo is a famously -- notoriously -- limited instrument, but it's very good at what it does: carry traditional and trad-based music. Sometimes, however, banjoists lose patience with the restraints and push their instrument into places it has not gone before, with mixed results," Jerome Clark says.

"Banjo picker Bill Evans's background is in bluegrass, but Let's Do Something... bows not at all to the genre, even as Megan Lynch's fiddle has the sound, at once lush and austere, that one associates with British folk-revival masters of the instrument."

Megan Munroe must contend with just One More Broken String in this recording. "If there's any justice in the music business, we're going to be hearing a lot from Megan Munroe," says Michael Scott Cain. "At age 25, she sings like a seasoned road warrior. It's hard to believe that One More Broken String is her first nationally-distributed CD (she had a self-released album in 2006); this woman comes across like a veteran who, after a lifetime, is still in it for the music."

Alex Clements is Waiting for You to enjoy his slice of jazz. "Clements wrote eight of the 10 tunes on this album and proves himself an exceptional composer. His melodies are memorable, especially the ballads, several of which are so hummable they seem to demand lyrics," Ron Bierman says. "It's a pleasure to come across an unfamiliar artist who can grab your attention in an era when it seems there's an endless supply of good musicians. Jazz fans can buy this one with confidence that they'll hear something more than just good. The CD is a standout, full of wonderful playing and music."

Kevin J. Anderson explores The Last Days of Krypton in this novel drawn from various sources in the Superman mythos and expanded to new heights of exposition. "Just as the characters and locations define the Superman mythos, it makes sense that Anderson uses characters and locations to define the world of Superman's birth. Anderson is well-known for his Star Wars sequels and Dune prequels, so it should come as no surprise that he can juggle a voluminous cast of characters with ease. Moving from a galaxy of myriad species to a single world must be relatively easier," says C. Nathan Coyle.

"Sure, this is yet another prequel (they've been all the rage for years). Sure, some may think this story has been told before, especially in the comics. To fans of science fiction that haven't read the comics, this is a tale you're sure to enjoy. And to any fellow comic geek thinking you've read this story before -- don't be so sure. Just because you know Krypton is going to explode, don't think you know the whole story."

John Scalzi includes no mention of androids in The Android's Dream ... but that doesn't dampen our reviewer's enthusiasm. "I will start by saying, 'Wow!' This book was the most fun I have had reading in a long time. It is just wild," Chris McCallister says. "I have read many good books, many of them being science fiction, in my life, and just in this year. This one ranks right up there with the best of them, and is certainly one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I have had."

Bill Pronzini brings the Nameless Detective back into action in Mourners. "The Nameless Detective novels are quick reads and they are fast-paced," Chris says. "They feature a good mixture of quiet suspense and action sequences, with credible, three-dimensional characters. Mourners is a good example of the series, and its mystery is not run-of-the-mill."

Stephen King doesn't let planning get in the way of The Waste Lands, the third volume in his Dark Tower series. "What this does is creates a thrill ride for the reader, and perhaps for King, too," Eric Hughes opines. "It's impossible to guess how King's stories will end based on the way they began. For a series like The Dark Tower, there's some logic behind that philosophy. What began as a 'simple' story in 1982 has transformed into a land of mystical creatures and happenings nine years later."

Comic-book writer and artist John Byrne revives a little Marvel backstory with The Lost Generation. "TLG takes several characters previously seen in Marvel stories, throws them in with quite a few dreamt up by Byrne, and gives readers a tale chock-full of well-done characterization and slam-bang superhero action," Mark Allen says.

"As is always the case, Byrne's art proves to be some of the most dynamic in the industry, and his storytelling ability is second to very few, even today. His heroes are true-blue and his villains are vile. Panels brim with action, drama and tension whenever the story calls for it -- which is often in this yarn. I suppose all of that is just another way of saying that Byrne is one of the best tights 'n' capes artists the comics world has ever seen."

Cindy Silbert draws inspiration from the Hawaiian goddess Hina for Chameleon Butterfly Dragonfly. "The book is intended to help women achieve their best Yin qualities by achieving balance between the three divine archetypes which control certain aspects of their personalities," Becky Kyle explains. "The book is thin, and the author purports you can simply hold the volume and flip to a random page and find some wisdom for your particular situation. She is indeed correct in this matter."

Miles O'Dometer takes a peek into The Lives of Others in this film from director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. "It has historical perspective. Set in 1984 (a date that will live forever in the minds of George Orwell fans), it reminds us of a time when the Berlin Wall still looked like it would stand forever," Miles says. "The dialogue is nothing if not efficient. (After all, it is German dialogue.) And there's even occasion for humor, when the absurdity of the obsession with information-gathering simply becomes too much to bear.

"Lives also has a great color scheme. Berlin circa 1984 is done in endless shades of brown, suggesting a world-weariness that even Dreyman's optimism can't rise above."

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!)

25 April 2009

I couldn't care less about all those fiction stories about what happened in the year 1500 or 1600. Half of them aren't even true.
- John Daly

Is it ... is it really spring?!

Sara Wendt is feeling entirely Weightless with Love. "Together with co-writer Ann Klein (guitars, keyboards, sitar, mandolin, backing vocals) and a varied lineup featuring pennywhistle, bass, drums, percussion and cello, Wendt recorded nine originals and one cover song with a mixture of folk, rock and blues," says Adolf Goriup. "Wendt has a beautiful voice, and her warm and rich singing is certainly the most significant feature of her music."

Brigitte DeMeyer makes her splash with Red River Flower. "DeMeyer, who lives in San Francisco, doesn't fit into any one particular genre -- though roots-pop gets close to it -- but there are echoes, sometimes more than that, of country, r&b, gospel, jazz and rockabilly throughout," Jerome Clark says.

"She's a uniquely soulful singer who, unlike many with comparable pipes, appreciates the virtue of vocal restraint. She's never showing off, in other words; she's always serving the song."

Catman Cohen dreams of a better future in The Catman Chronicles 1: How I Want to Die. "How I Want to Die has a distinct tendency to become strange, and some of the time that strangeness works wonders," Paul de Bruijn says. "The songs work more often than not, are strange more often than not and aren't about to be mistaken for anything else any time soon."

Commander Cody shares a round with Dopers, Drunks & Everyday Losers. "You can't listen to Dopers, Drunks & Everyday Losers without laughing, wanting to dance and admiring the musicianship," says Michael Scott Cain. "My advice? Don't wait 'til tomorrow, don't wait for the rain to stop, just go out and get it. Now."

Christian McCallister takes a step into the future for a look at the past in Coming Full Circle: Munising to Munising. "Until the very end of the novel, I kept wondering why this story was placed in the future. (There is a reason that I won't give away.) But the story could also have simply been placed 1,000 years in the past with minor tweaks to the storyline and the same life lessons could have been taught," Wil Owen says. "I can only imagine McCallister will release a future novel with homo novus characters that will tie these books together. I, for one, would look forward to that!"

James Nelson continues his Revolution at Sea with The Maddest Idea. "Based loosely on actual events from the early days of the American Revolution, this second volume of Nelson's Revolution at Sea saga is far more exciting and suspenseful than the first, By Force of Arms," Tom Knapp says.

"Captain Biddlecomb leaps into the forefront with much greater development, and the adventures of supporting characters such as Virginia Stanton and Major Fitzgerald keep the book flowing at a breakneck pace. I will be making haste to begin the third book in the series, The Continental Risque, to see what happens next."

Thomas Harris gets up close and personal with homicidal cannabalism, and Eric Hughes takes a close look at two of the main courses. "Although there are four books in Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter series, The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal share a stronger connection with each other than with the franchise's other titles for two reasons: (1) their respective theatrical adaptations made way more money at the box office, and (2) the strange Hannibal/Clarice Starling relationship is highlighted only in these two texts, and not in either that bookend them," Eric says. "With that being said, there's one nagging question that should be answered here at the top. Which book is better? Let me put it this way. Had I decided to read Hannibal before The Silence of the Lambs, I wouldn't have made it to The Silence of the Lambs."

Gilbert Hernandez steps outside the world of Palomar for a little Sloth in the DC Universe. "Mid-story, the three characters undergo an interesting switch, or, more accurately, a triangulation of reality. Any more hints would ruin a fine twist to an eerie, excellent story that's equal parts magical realism, teenage romance and nourish supernatural thriller, all in one wonderful package," Mary Harvey says.

"Hernandez portrays suburbia as not only unsafe but a place where things can go horribly wrong, with murder, drug running and suicide rearing their ugly heads. The result is an existence more morbid than death itself, which makes self-willed comas less of an escape and more like a survival mechanism."

Elena Dorfman's Fandomania is "a striking glimpse into the world of cosplay: a subculture of roleplayers wearing the costumes of characters from anime, manga, video games and even television and movie productions," says Jessica Lux-Baumann.

"Cosplay has its origins in Japan, and the characters emulated are most often of Japanese origin, but Dorfman's book showcases a decidedly American facet of the lifestyle."

Steve Weber tells interested merchants how to Sell On Amazon in this self-help book. "In addition to his own tried-and-tested experience in dealing through Amazon, Weber has solicited the perspective of others who have expanded their product sales by linking with the merchandiser," John Lindermuth says. "Since Amazon doesn't charge sellers any fees until their goods are sold, this may be the perfect opportunity for many to supplement their income in these trying financial times."

Tom Knapp says the film Baby Mama fails to deliver, despite co-starring performances by the talented Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. "Sadly, it seems they should have kept making hay of Sarah Palin's political inadequacies, because this film -- though rife with potential and boasting a fine supporting cast -- was 99 minutes I could have better spent contemplating the pain shooting down my leg," he says. "The two leads slog through material that seems like it should be funny but isn't. Given the people involved, I expected a smart, well-written comedy that offered some touching insights into society along the way. Instead, they went for cheap chuckles -- and failed to earn them."

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!)

18 April 2009

I couldn't care less about all those fiction stories about what happened in the year 1500 or 1600. Half of them aren't even true.
- John Daly

Oh, what a week it's been.

The Simon Mayor Quintet shines the spotlight on the mandolin on Mandolinquents, an aptly titled recording if ever there was one. "As the title intimates, a certain stringed instrument is the primal force here, but it is not alone. On 14 lovely tracks the mandolin is joined variously by guitar, bass, violin and vocals," says Nicky Rossiter. "These are top-class musicians playing music as if they are having fun."

David Lykins is not just some Blurry White Guy when it comes to country-inflected folk music. "Though its influences aren't hard to discern -- and there's nothing wrong with audible influences; what matters is what you do with them -- Blurry White Guy is a good album," Jerome Clark says.

"I've been listening to it pretty much nonstop since it arrived in yesterday's mail, and I like it better each time it spins past. Lykins, the photographs (non-blurry ones on the back cover and inside) depicting as a beefy middle-aged man, is a smart, mature writer with a gimlet gaze and a wit's way of upending cliches."

Sean Taylor settles into Calcutta Grove for a slice of London blues. "Taylor recorded the album alone; he sings and plays acoustic and electric guitars, dobro, keyboards, percussion and harmonica," Adolf Goriup says. "The album mostly features slow and quiet songs and tunes, blues influenced by R&B, country-blues and psychedelic rock. I think it's an interesting approach and I really loved some of the songs, but don't expect to hear old-time blues."

Kaitlin Hahn takes us back to Celtic Colours with her review of Bho Linn gu Linn: Generations, a family-oriented show featuring The Beatons, The Dewars, Aongus & Angus Grant, and Seonaidh Beag MacMillan & Calum Alex MacMillan. "I'm always fascinated to see the connection between family members and their music. This concert was a great example of this," Kaitlin says. "It was a really fun concert that, once again, got me excited for more music at Festival Club."

Richard Yee's Deliveries: A Collection "contains 14 short stories dealing with a variety of topics and evoking a myriad of responses; the only common link between the stories is that they are all written brilliantly," Cherise Everhard says. "From the disturbing to the thoughtful, from the erotic to the violent, each story stands out as its own masterpiece. Deliveries is unerringly clever and Richard Yee is enormously talented."

Dan Ronco's Unholy Domain was a tough read, Gregg Thurlbeck says, in part because the book was dropped from a canoe and waterlogged while he was reading it. "But, regardless of the difficulties of carefully teasing apart the dampened pages that closed off this near-future text, Unholy Domain was a bit of a struggle," he says.

"The whole thing feels like a shoot-'em-up computer game, barely enough character development to hook the player in, nowhere near the sort of depth that might cause any delay in gleefully blowing folks away. And what limited character development there is comes via italicized sentences that serve as thought balloons. While this can be an interesting and enlightening technique, Ronco overuses it, cluttering the text with irrelevant asides."

Georgette Heyer sets her sights on The Spanish Bride in this novel of the Peninsular Wars. "As a way of experiencing Wellington's wars, Heyer's historical accuracy and genuine characters make The Spanish Bride a brilliant lesson," Whitney Mallenby says. "However, this novel lacks impact on two counts: the trudging pace keeps anyone who wouldn't relish the military life a bit too close to the atmosphere of the Peninsular Wars, and the avoidance of the battle of Waterloo (which Heyer handles in An Infamous Army) leaves the ending sudden and weak."

Green Arrow takes fans along on The Archer's Quest. "Filmmaker Kevin Smith was charged with bringing Green Arrow back from the dead. Bestselling novelist Brad Meltzer was given the task of setting the beloved character back on the road to success," Tom Knapp says. "This isn't groundbreaking material here, and it won't go down in the annals of DC history as a major event by any stretch. But it's fun, and it's pleasant. Sometimes, that's enough."

Stephen Fox tells the story of Raphael Semmes, the Wolf of the Deep that prowled the world's oceans during the American Civil War and wreaked havoc on Union shipping. "The story is riveting for anyone remotely interested in Civil War or American naval history. Fox presents the facts clearly, equally showing Semmes' successes and failures, his strength of character and his personal weaknesses," Tom Knapp says.

"Readers will learn about Semmes' family and their place in the war, as well as the backgrounds and performances of his officers on the ship; little, however, is known about the crew that sailed her. And everything is set neatly into the overarching context of Union and Confederate politics and military strategies, as well as the perspective on the war in other nations."

Irene Spencer exposes her faith in Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife. "From the title of this book, I expected to read more ruminations on the 'shattering' of dreams," Jessica Lux-Baumann says. "Irene's story is no tell-all expose against polygamy. She left the lifestyle after she was widowed, and she has lived in monogamy for the last two decades, but she does not crusade against her former sect. Irene has instead chosen to share the story of a wife and mother struggling to find balance and contentment in life. The reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions from Irene's life of poverty and personal sacrifice."

Well, we know Alan Moore won't be watching it. But how does reviewer Mary Harvey feel about the big-screen adaptation of The Watchmen?

"Dark, gritty and suspenseful, with a soundtrack that's a roster of the best hits of the '60s and '70s, the film churns along like a locomotive, cramming a ton of detail into two-and-a-half hours that somehow doesn't feel that long," she says. "None of the book's hefty philosophy is lost in translation. Like the original series, the movie is an epic story that draws on existentialist philosophies, nuclear-age political satire, dysfunctional personalities, and gonzo history all combined into one visually searing social commentary."

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!)

11 April 2009

You can turn painful situations around through laughter. If you can find humor in anything -- even poverty -- you can survive it.
- Bill Cosby


Malinky adds a blend of Flower & Iron to its music. "The dozen tracks on Flower & Iron give full vent to this talented quintet, allowing each member to excel in the rendition of songs old and new. The band has a beautiful, gentle delivery that is evident from the opening bars of the first song," Nicky Rossiter says.

"Malinky has produced another gem of Scottish folk with this CD."

Swift Years is "a band of wonderful musicians, and listening to them play is a delight," Paul de Bruijn says. "Their music is the best part of Three; their vocals, on the other hand, feel flat owing to the almost monotone feel the spoken-sung delivery gives them."

Tiny Tin Lady makes its move to a Ridiculous Bohemia. "This all-girl group from Liverpool has an infectious sound and a wonderfully irreverent take on their music that will refresh the genre if they get sufficient exposure," Nicky Rossiter says. "You can reward their creativity and your discerning ear by seeking out this refreshing album."

Mickey Clark takes his brand of country-folk down Winding Highways. "The melodies are neo-folk, and the lyrics tend toward ballad-like narratives," Jerome Clark -- no relation -- says. "Clark is an able storyteller, capturing persons and situations in succinct, well-chosen words. Simple but effective, the tunes stick in one's head, and Clark sings them in a pleasantly conversational light baritone. Winding Highways feels as warm and comforting as an old, beloved flannel shirt." Way to go, JC, that's 400 reviews!

Steve James has an album of Short Blue Stories to share. "Veteran folk-bluesman Steve James is a master of the full-bodied, down-home sound of resonator guitar, 12-string and mandolin, with slide featured on most of Short Blue Stories' cuts," Jerome says. "If he sounds like a voice from the 1930s, I guess that makes him a prophet gazing into the near future. Before you know it -- in the unlikely event you hadn't noticed already -- all of us may be living in the 1930s."

Ryan Blotnick is up for jazz when the Music Needs You. "Ryan Blotnick is only 24 years old, but his music tastes like matured wine," Adolf Goriup says. "For this album he has gathered a five-piece lineup that delivers a stunning sound somewhere between a chilled bar sound and cool as well as free jazz, a mixture of classic jazz standards and improvised grooves. I really love it."

James Nelson examine the Revolution at Sea via the adventures of merchant captain Isaac Biddlecomb in the first book of his series, By Force of Arms.

"Set just before the start of the American Revolution, By Force of Arms is the first in a five-book saga that follows Biddlecomb through the course of the war. James Nelson -- who has already proven himself to me with The Brethren of the Coast, a trilogy set in and off the coast of Virginia a century earlier -- writes a lively seafaring yarn that kept me entertained from start to finish and had me lined up for the next book in the series," Tom Knapp says. "This book is packed with action but a little scanty on character development; I look forward to getting to know Biddlecomb and his compatriots better soon."

Stephen King continues his Dark Tower saga with The Drawing of the Three. "While I'm eager to continue with the Dark Tower books, I can't say I was especially a fan of The Drawing of the Three. The series totally earns its sci-fi branding here as parallel worlds, strange creatures and the like are introduced in this second installment of seven books," says Eric Hughes.

"But the simplicity of The Gunslinger, which introduced readers to Roland's quest for a mystical tower, is completely thrown out the window. No longer are we dealing with a single, barren world, a few soft-spoken characters and some interesting insight on the universe and the significance of size. Here, we're literally traveling in and out of characters' heads, we're mercilessly killing law enforcement and other cronies and powering our way through a substantial amount of ammunition."

The cast and crew of Galaxy Quest takes to the comic book universe in Global Warning, but with much less success than it did the big screen, Tom Knapp reports. "Galaxy Quest was an awesome film, perhaps the best Star Trek movie never made. Now, 10 years later, Scott Lobdell has penned a comic-book adventure for our heroes that seriously pales in comparison to the original," Tom says. "All in all, Global Warning is the product of lazy work. With some good writing and illustrating, Galaxy Quest could be a hit all over again. But if this is the best they can do, then please let the movie rest in peace."

Larry S. Chowning recalls a time when there were Soldiers at the Doorstep in the American South. "Not everyone knows someone who knew someone who was alive during the Civil War. But Larry S. Chowning does, and he's willing to sit down and share a few tales with anyone willing to hear them," Tom Knapp says. "The great events and personalities that drive a war can be found in any number of texts. Much rarer is the human side of the story, and that is what Chowning captures here. His narratives are simple and easygoing, like a story you'd hear on a shady porch, spoken in a soft Virginia drawl over a glass of cold lemonade. This is a part of history that should be remembered, too."

Miles O'Dometer takes a moment to explore a hometown tragedy and its aftermath in We Are Marshall, which tells the tale of a plane that crashed on Nov. 14, 1970, with much of the Marshall University football team on board. "You have a compelling true story: that of a plenty-gritty steel town, Huntington, W.Va., that lost many of its sons -- not to mention husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers -- when the aforementioned plane went down," Miles says. "That story is brought home through the lives of several people who were affected deeply by the tragedy. ... Each feels the loss in a somewhat different way, and each responds differently."

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!)

3 April 2009

Thanks for the well-wishes, everyone! For those who didn't know, editor Tom Knapp (that's me) just had knee surgery and is in owie pain right now. That's why there's no new edition this week; I'm on happy pills for the ouchies and am in no shape to edit!

28 March 2009

In the end, everything is a gag.
- Charlie Chaplin

Is it spring yet?!

Please don't forget Hannah Garman. Thanks!


Mason Brown recalls a time When Humans Walked the Earth. "Sadly, I can provide little background on this intriguingly titled album by Mason Brown. But then again, why not let the music speak -- and speak eloquently it does," says Nicky Rossiter. "The only thing missing from this album to make it perfect is a lyric sheet."

Ian Tyson carries "a flinty authenticity that serves to deepen" the 10 songs of Yellowhead to Yellowstone & Other Love Stories, Jerome Clark says. "First, there's the voice, not the one -- at least without prior warning -- that you'd associate with Ian Tyson. It's huskier, worn, rising up from the throat in something between a rasp and a whisper. Not Ramblin' Jack Elliott but a nod in that direction, it is the consequence of time, circumstance and infection.

"Let me say right here that this is Tyson's finest recording since the masterly Lost Herd (1999), and a substantial improvement over his disappointing last outing (compromised by occasionally shaky material and an ill-conceived attempt to integrate night-club jazz and cowboy balladry). This time the production -- most of it put together in Nashville, the rest in Edmonton, Alberta, all of it commendably spare and restrained -- could hardly be better suited to the songs, which exemplify Tyson at his most intensely focused and affecting."

Anne Weiss touches on the blues through a Concrete World & The Lover's Dream. "I put this CD on the player with a heavy sense of duty, in the full, unhappy expectation that it would be yet another drearily self-absorbed, inner-gazing singer-songwriter effort. I quickly learned otherwise. Anne Weiss, who works out of Seattle, is a whole lot more like Bonnie Raitt than Joni Mitchell or any of her abundant, narcissistically sensitive progeny," Jerome Clark says.

"Like Raitt, Weiss counts r&b, rock, country blues and the folk revival among her defining influences. Unlike Raitt, Weiss has not had to face the commercial pressures to sanitize her sound, and thus Concrete World & The Lover's Dream will hold your -- or anyway holds my -- attention more than any Raitt disc I've heard in a while."

Ellen Honert brings a lot to the table for Breath of the Soul. "The CD features six original songs as well as six covers, brilliantly interpreted by a bunch of excellent musicians including Peruvian percussion master Alex Acuna, Tuck & Patti, co-writer Frank Martin and many more," says Adolf Goriup. "Her superb singing and composing is topped with an exceptional lineup that made Ellen's dreams come true. For me, she joined the club of the greatest contemporary jazz singers."

Souad Massi draws on her varied roots for Mesk Elil. "There is a melancholy that runs through many of the songs on Mesk Elil (which translates to "Honeysuckle"), but it is an elegant and beautiful thing. Souad Massi's voice gives it strength and grace of form. The music adds so much to this that you can get the feel of the songs without understanding a word of what she sings," Paul de Bruijn says. "The music is beautiful in its sorrow and passion, and somehow while it can bring your heart to weep it lifts you back up in the end."

Wade Miller's work is resurrected in a double feature, Devil on Two Sticks and The Killer. "Fans of suspense novels, as well as fans of good writing, should shout with joy," says Michael Scott Cain. "If you have read Wade Miller before, you'll be glad these titles are available once more. If you haven't, well, here's a good place to begin. And once you begin, you'll want to continue."

Richard Russo is Nobody's Fool. "Russo has a knack for adorning his stories with colorful characters, and the ones in Nobody's Fool are no exception," says Eric Hughes. "Sully, in fact, is perhaps my favorite lead character of his that I've read up to this point. He's funny, he's sweet and seems to be aware of and in control of a lot more than people give him credit for. His antics about the town never ceased to amuse me."

Georgette Heyer targets the Black Sheep of the family in this historical novel. "Miss Abigail Wendover leads a charming life full of high fashion, close friends and a confidence that enables her to keep her own counsel in the face of both societal and familial objections," Whitney Mallenby says.

"Possessed of an independent living as well as an independent mind, Abby's choices lead her beyond the simple struggle between propriety and desire, and into the dilemma over how to select which pressures and thoughts should count towards her decision. The combination of Abby's insights with her impetuous streak of humor turn her into one of Heyer's most delightful, fresh and modern heroines."

Tom Knapp was wary when approaching his time with Secret Invasion: Inhumans. "I have never been very interested in the Inhumans, a race of super-powered outcasts who live on the Moon. I have also managed to avoid most of this past year's Secret Invasion hoopla, which has seemed from the sidelines like a lot of overblown hype," he says.

"I doubt this book will convince me to seek out more of the vast Secret Invasion library ... but it might spark my interest in the further adventures of the Inhumans. And that's a pretty good trick."

Jeff Lemire makes an impression with the first volume of Essex County, Tales from the Farm. "The inner worlds of children are highly complex, and the way they deal with emotional trauma can be very complicated. Their readiness to delve into alternate frames of mind makes the exploration of grief issues very intriguing," Mary Harvey says.

"Lemire's respectful and honest depiction of Lester, a 10-year-old boy orphaned by his mother's cancer, is so real, yet so gentle, that it makes the acceptance of this most arduous reality a life-affirming event."

Kevin Jennings reveals a lot of himself in Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son. "This memoir is not merely the story of a homosexual boy living below the poverty line in the Deep South. Jennings's personal struggles with family and community acceptance are neither extreme nor representative of the majority," Jessica Lux-Baumann says. "The strength of Jennings's life story lies in the experiences and incidents that led to his career as an activist. The author is able to portray the gradual development of his adult activist spirit, so far removed from the boy who lived in fear of school and his classmates."

In his last film, The Road to Guantanamo, director Michael Winterbottom "told the story of a trio of British Muslims who were carted off from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay and held for two years until being released without charge. This time around, in A Mighty Heart, he takes us in the opposite direction, following the trail of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) and his wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie), also a reporter, as they make their way to Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. response and then proceed to Pakistan for -- Pearl tells his wife -- 'one last interview,'" says Miles O'Dometer. "A Mighty Heart is a film that can make you believe in the power of individuals, even when they seem to be at their most powerless. Mighty indeed."

Just last week, Tom Knapp treated us to his review of the film Coraline. The very day it was posted, Mary Harvey submitted her own version, so we present it here as well. (Just scroll down past Tom's review -- or, heck, read it again -- to see Mary's.)

"Coraline is a unique viewing experience on many levels, not least of which is that everything you see on screen was made by hand," Mary says. "Coraline is as creepy and cool as it is funny and engaging. In terms of the actual technical craft of the movie itself, it's as vivid, dreamlike and rich in texture as Neil Gaiman's highly developed, very detailed story. It also pulls off the rare trick of not allowing the special effects to overwhelm the story."

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!)