11 July 2009 to 19 September 2009

19 September 2009

That man's best works should be such bungling imitations of Nature's infinite perfection, matters not much; but that he should make himself an imitation, this is the fact which Nature moans over, and deprecates beseechingly. Be spontaneous, be truthful, be free, and thus be individuals! is the song she sings through warbling birds, and whispering pines, and roaring waves, and screeching winds.
- Lydia M. Child

Yaarrgh! 'Tis Talk Like a Pirate Day, me hearties, and we would be havin' ye join in with yer best "heave hos," "weigh heys" and, of course, the occasional "aarrrgh!"

Charlie Zahm shares his Recent Journeys in this collection of original songs. "What struck me about this 10-track CD was the ho-hum factor the first time through (I was driving at the time). With each subsequent listening, however, I became more appreciative of Zahm's craft in melding words and music. The words tell a definite story and the music enhances the storyteller's art," Bill Knapp says.

"Charlie Zahm's nearly two dozen CD and DVD releases plus dozens of appearances annually have earned him a reputation as a serious and seasoned musician. Not only is he an accomplished singer and songwriter, he is a multi-instrumentalist as well."

Jed Marum says there Ain't No Goin' Back after this one. The five-track CD, Nicky Rossiter says, "is a lovely introduction to Jed Marum, his music and his interpretations of the songs of others. ... But be warned you will want more of his sound -- much more."

The Insomniacs may be singing the blues, but At Least I'm Not With You. "Portland, Oregon's Insomniacs are a throwback to an earlier era. Although they're only in their 20s, the quartet's sound is rooted in '50s blues and soul music. It's classic, timeless music," Michael Scott Cain remarks.

"At a time when most blues bands are just rock bands in disguise, copying the people who copied the people who copied the originals, it is really nice to hear a band that has its own vision, a band that has gone back to the classic tunes and artists for inspiration and has found it own way by going there."

Corinne Smith has a lot of fond memories from a summer concert featuring Elton John and Billy Joel, together again. "Two men in their early 60s had just spent more than three hours offering up their best: the music of both their lives and ours," Corinne says. "Those who came to see just one of the performers should have been pleasantly pleased by the unexpected talent of the other. It's no exaggeration to say we had spent time in the presence of greatness, in terms of both the music and the history of pop culture. It was a memorable experience."

Joella Foulds, co-founder of the Celtic Colours International Festival, gives roving reviewer Kaitlin Hahn a sneak peek into this year's event with information on Otis Tomas's fiddle tree. Foulds explained: "The fiddle tree is a single tree that Otis made an entire family of stringed instruments out of. He made some fiddles, a viola, a cello, a harp and some guitars, and they're all going to be used in the Fiddle Tree concert during Celtic Colours."

Patricia Briggs spins a new supernatural series off her old with Alpha & Omega. "This brief novel -- actually, a long short story, first published in the anthology On the Prowl -- builds on that world in an intriguing way, introducing new characters and concepts that flow in an entirely new direction," Tom Knapp says.

"This story, at just under 100 pages, packs a lot of development into a little space. It certainly wouldn't have hurt to be a little longer, but Briggs' fans will be thrilled to learn it has spun off into a new ongoing series. Cry Wolf and Hunting Ground have already been released and more are on the way."

C.L. Talmadge follows The Vision and Fallout with The Scorpions Strike in The Green Stone of Healing series. "In this third book, I was hoping for some conclusion to the saga or, at least, clear and measurable progress toward a conclusion. Many things happen in this book, but much of is rehashing or re-enactments of things that occurred in the first two books. Political schemes abound, but none really succeed or fail. Alliances strengthen or shift, but all the main players are still on the board at the end, with no real gains made. The bad guys do seem to gain some ground, but score no really impressive wins. The momentum is shifting in their direction, but I cannot say they gain anything other than that," Chris McCallister says.

"Some readers enjoy these slow-paced series with numerous iterations and drawn-out overarching storylines, that can go 10, 20 or even more volumes. I am not such a reader."

Joseph Delaney seeks the Revenge of the Witch in the first volume of The Last Apprentice. "Rather than heroes and villains, Joseph Delaney's characters are dynamic, complex individuals whose stories are only hinted at in this first book," says Jennifer Mo.

"Subtlety aside, the pace is breakneck, the woodcuts genuinely creepy and the world considerably darker than the usual quasi-medieval setting. The writing is deft, descriptive and relies more on imagination than gore to send chills up the spine. I picked up Revenge of the Witch at bedtime, expecting to flip idly through and put it down after a chapter or two. I was up until 1 a.m."

Ken Grimwood takes it from the top -- over and over again -- in Replay, a novel about two people who always die on the same date, then are reborn to a point earlier in their lives. "An amusing running commentary is on historic and cultural events between 1963 and 1988, which is the initial span of the jump. Jeff and Pam have literally seen it all before as it happens over and over," Dave says.

"Grimwood pulls surprise after surprise out of his hat. Plot is his strong suit. His prose is OK. This story is a difficult one to tie up and the ending shows that. But he does send the reader away with a glow."

DC Comics did it right, Mark Allen asserts, with H-E-R-O: Powers & Abilities.

"The second revival of a Silver Age concept, H-E-R-O told the story of individuals who gained superpowers through a mysterious device. However, instead of subscribing to high ideals, fighting the good fight and generally improving conditions and circumstances for themselves and others, dealing with the seeming windfall of great abilities brought disappointment, and even disaster," he says.

"Writer Will Pfeifer handled characterization in a masterful fashion, giving readers a full view of humanity that is as real as you can find in the capes 'n' tights genre. These are not the cardboard cut-outs of so many superhero tales, but representations with human foibles and shortcomings that are sometimes difficult to look at, but captivating in their honesty."

Endi Bogue Hartigan garners praise for One Sun Storm, an award-winning collection of poetry. "On the whole, these poems are intricate and phrenic: to do, at once, with the mind and the heart," Ailbhe Darcy says.

Tom Knapp laments the timing that, he believes, soured the reception for The X-Files: I Want to Believe. "For fans of the long-running series, it was good to see Fox Mulder and Dana Scully back in action together, and David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson certainly have not forgotten what makes those characters tick. Sure, they're a little more smoochy than they used to be, but not so much that their long-suppressed passion gets in the way of their diverging styles of investigation," he says.

"The big problem here is that creator/director Chris Carter left us hanging too long. This movie is long overdue. Many fans have moved on in the six years since the series went off the air, and I Want to Believe just isn't blockbuster enough to lure in enough a large new audience. And, by ignoring the show's multilayered mythology -- from Mulder's missing sister and the Smoking Man's various plots to the impending alien invasion -- this X-Files was in many ways reduced to just another buddy-cop film."

Dave Sturm gives a lot away in his review of Children of Men. "How wildly divergent are the opinions about this movie. Amazing. This is a movie I've seen twice now and intend to see again. It bowled me over," Dave says.

"Despite the sci-fi trappings, this movie is really about a wrecked loser being handed a mission and getting a chance for redemption. But he's not Bruce Willis. He never picks up a gun. He's wearing flip flops. He picks a car that doesn't start. He never cracks wise. He wears a shabby raincoat throughout the movie. He's terrified and confused. His main good point, and what keeps pulling his chestnuts out of the fire, is that he's trustworthy."

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!)

12 September 2009

I wandered to the well. Water has its moods, flowing or still; it can lure you like a lover, or look as bleak as a broken heart. I pushed the faded vines aside and dipped my hand into the water. Wind rippled it, and my splashing; it would not give me my reflection. But it tasted of those great dreaming clouds, and of the bright winds and broken pieces of blue sky its trembling waters caught. It tasted of the last sun before winter.
- Patricia A. McKillip

I don't read many blogs, but I have to recommend The Bloggess to anyone who enjoys a good read. I would try to describe her to you, but she is hard to define. Suffice it to say, if you are easily offended, do NOT visit her site. If sex and swearing disturb you, go somewhere else. But if you like to laugh and have a quirky sense of humor ... get on over there!! (After reading today's edition of Rambles.NET, of course.)

Johnny Duhan builds a concept in Just Another Town. "The Voyage was a fantastic example taking family and relationships as he motif. Johnny Duhan returns with an even better collection of songs on this new album, Just Another Town, where the town and its inhabitants are at the heart of the wonderful compositions sung in his own inimitable style," Nicky Rossiter says.

"This was one of the best albums of 2007 and it is all the more valuable in coming from Ireland and from the genius of one songwriter who is sadly underrated in his own land. If enough airplays were given to any single track here he would be a superstar. As for now, you still have the chance to acquire a masterpiece."

The Pines put a little extra Tremolo into their music with this sophomore recording. "What emerges is something between roots-rock and roots-folk, in a more acoustic alternative to the approach Dylan has taken in his late career," Jerome Clark says.

"Though The Pines, who are Benson Ramsey and David Huckfelt, are youngish, their songs have deeper resonance than one -- or at least I -- would have anticipated. The CD is brilliantly co-produced by Bo Ramsey (Benson's dad) and the band, with some of the Twin Cities' finest rock musicians providing tasteful settings. There's not a lot of rocking-out here; rather, the sound is mostly restrained, even pensive, rolling along largely at mid-tempo."

The Wailin' Jennys are Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. "It leads me to recall a letter I read in Mad magazine when I was a kid," Jerome says. "A reader inquired, 'Am I maturing, or is Mad getting worse?' Mad's response -- inevitably -- was, 'Mad's maturing, so you must be getting worse.' Well, I think the Jennys are maturing, and I also like to think, perhaps too optimistically, that I'm not getting worse.

"Suffice it to say, in any case, I was already having a good summer and this CD only made it sonically, possibly even spiritually, richer. The vocals and harmonies approach a degree of perfection, without ever sounding soullessly technical, that one barely expects to encounter on this Earth. The arrangements attain that rare state where the simple and the full meet and it's not exactly easy to discern where one ends and the other picks up the slack."

Jason Ricci & New Blood are Done With the Devil. "Jason Ricci says his new record is more about songs than anything else. None of the songs were written or chosen as vehicles for solos or any other sort of musical pyrotechnics. Ricci sees this choice as evidence that the band has become more sophisticated, more adult," says Michael Scott Cain.

"I've got to agree. Usually, records by harp wizards like Ricci feature the harp player out front with the rest of the band laying down riffs in support; occasionally, the guitar player gets to stretch out, but mostly it's the harpist. That's not what's going on here."

Francesca Lia Block's main character, Charlotte, is Pretty Dead. "When her twin brother, with whom she shared a magical bond, died of a fever, Charlotte Emerson wanted to die. She wanted to live forever. One wish came true," Tom Knapp says.

"Pretty Dead is an unusual slant on the 'moody young vampire' subgenre that is sweeping the shelves and leaving countless young readers swooning in the aisles. For one thing, Francesca Lia Block is a more accomplished and talented writer than many of her peers in the field, so readers know going in that her prose will have a poetic touch that pulls you in and wraps you in words."

C.S. Forester advances his most famous protagonist in rank in Lieutenant Hornblower. "Although ostensibly about Hornblower, the events of Lieutenant Hornblower are seen largely through the eyes of Lt. William Bush, who is for most of the novel Hornblower's immediate superior. It's a perfect perspective for keeping tabs on the action as it unfolds, providing an uninterrupted view of Hornblower's burgeoning brilliance at sea," Tom says.

"This engrossing book had me carrying it with me wherever I went and turning pages as fast as I could. It's a fascinating look at life in the British navy and, even more so, at the developing character of Horatio Hornblower. I am eager to continue through the remaining nine books in the series."

John Crowley fell short of his mark with Conversation Hearts. "The story here does nothing but offer some potential to the theme that handicapped children should be loved as much as normal ones," says Becky Kyle. "Crowley (best known for Little, Big) is an amazing author and I strongly recommend many of his other works, but Conversation Hearts left a bad taste in my mouth."

C.L. Talmadge deals with a little Fallout in the second book of The Green Stone of Healing. "In some ways, this plays out as a fantasy version of a political soap opera, with all the machinations and triangles and alliances one would look for in that genre. What saves it, to some extent, is the alien nature of the culture, the strength of the characterizations, and the one character, Maguari, who is a Mist-Weaver," Chris McCallister says.

"But the characters are overwrought, the pace gets bogged down at times and there is not enough new material in this sequel. Many ideas that were made clear in the first book get re-stated, once or several times. This all distracts from a good story that is buried beneath the melodrama and the repetition."

Mary Harvey is back to heavy petting with The Rabbi's Cat 2. "Set in 1930s Algeria, the sequel is as witty and humorous as the first. In fact, it's even better," she says. "While the first story dealt with issues of race and religion, with a minor travelogue set in the center, the plot of TRC2 is flipped completely over, with the adventure surrounding a center composed of issues regarding race and religion.

"And no book about a wisecracking cat would be complete without philosophical discussions between the cat and the other animals and humans he encounters. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have free will? Where on this Earth can a person live in peace with their neighbors? Does a dogmatic view of the world and God truly bring us closer to the Mystery or does it create hostility and enmity between different ethnicities? As with TRC, the point of the story is not to provide an answer but, in true Talmudic studies fashion, to simply raise the question."

George Franklin Feldman tackles an unsavory topic in Cannibalism, Headhunting & Human Sacrifice in North America. "This is not a book for the faint-hearted. That said, it is an interesting, even engrossing exploration of man's inhumanity and the struggle for dominance," John Lindermuth says.

"Feldman, who voices a long interest in archaeology and North American history, presents evidence to dispel the sanitized viewpoint of the Native American as noble savage. The presentation does little for the image of the European explorers and colonizers, either."

Mary Harvey takes a close look at a hard-luck Japanese superhero in Dai-Nipponjin, a.k.a. Big Man Japan. "Though the film could stand to have its last half hour painlessly chopped off as it veers into some silly Power Rangers/Ultraman stuff, the movie as a whole is a lot of fun," she says.

"It's original, zany and delightful, not to mention virtually impossible to describe in mere words. You might not see a stranger film all year, but it's a wonderful movie in addition to being a loving homage to the Japanese and their obsession with city-destroying monsters. This one is destined for cult film success, and it deserves every bit of it."

Dave Sturm says Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer "is not a normal movie."

"It's an abnormal movie. You've seen more blood, more sadism, more sickness in a lot of horror films, but this approaches the subject of serial murder matter of fact. Here's this sick guy. He kills. He enlists his cousin. They kill together. He tries to explain why he does, and sounds like any other loser," Dave explains. "This is not a movie. It's a document. It says, Here it is. Take what you want from it. As such, it's impressive, down to the final, awful scene."

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!)

5 September 2009

The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

We're going to pick up our new, emergency backup dog from the York SPCA!

Dana & Susan Robinson reveal a Big Mystery in a recording that is, in some ways, reminiscent of the music of Cat Stevens. "The Robinsons are deeply conversant in Southern and other homegrown traditional music, which informs Dana's songwriting, not to mention the couple's occasional covers of genuine folk material," Jerome Clark says.

"The music is smart, tuneful and atmospheric, and it is something you will want to hear more than once."

Paula Lammers is all tucked up under A Blanket of Blue. "Paula Lammers wasn't the first to sing the 11 vintage favorites on her first album. But she's made them her own with verve and originality," John Lindermuth says.

"A Minneapolis-based jazz vocalist, she has a sweet voice and a polished style honed in appearances throughout the Midwest. Lammers is operatically trained and it shows in the elegance and grace she brings to these renditions of jazz standards. Her vocals are warm and personal with clear enunciation."

Cedric Burnside & Lightnin' Malcolm are a 2 Man Wrecking Crew when it comes to the blues. "You wouldn't think that a single guitar and a set of drums would be enough to pull off music this fine, but then you wouldn't think that most guitarists and drummers would be this good, either. These guys can set up a groove that makes you want to give up walking and float and then create a solo out of it that seems natural and downhome, so you have to hear it several times before you realize exactly how much skill is behind it," says Michael Scott Cain.

"Burnside and Malcolm know their stuff. Theirs is deep in the Delta blues. As they sing, they don't just sing about the blues, they live it."

With excitement building for Celtic Colours 2009, let's take a few moments to look back at some moments from Celtic Colours 2008.

First, Kaitlin Hahn had an opportunity to sit down with Sligo fiddler Manus McGuire to discuss his music. Follow the link to learn a little more about an Irishman in Cape Breton.

Kaitlin also has a few memories to share about J.P. Cormier's performances at the Festival Club. "If you want to hear an amazingly talented musician, just look for the tall guy in a cowboy hat and boots and beg the stage manager to bring him on! No one will regret the request," she says.

Nicole Peeler dips into selkie lore in Tempest Rising, a fey murder-mystery set in rural Maine. "Age-appropriateness is, perhaps, my only real complaint about this book. It looks and reads in many ways like a young-adult novel, but much of the content is decidedly adult. In fact, Peeler takes obvious delight in Jane's sexual reawakening in these pages, so be prepared for some pretty hot and heavy fey action," Tom Knapp says.

"Otherwise, Tempest Rising is a highly recommended read for fans of dark urban fantasy. It's spooky, sexy, suspenseful and fun. It's also a fine first effort from Peeler, from whom the second volume in the Jane True series is already on its way."

Emma Gabor unleashes a Predatoress when four Hungarian girls find themselves transformed into teenage vampires. "This book reads like a memoir told from the viewpoint of Emma, the friend that starts it all. The book summary promises an interesting and unusual vampire tale that pulled me in immediately. Unfortunately, the actual story fails to pick up speed until the book is about halfway through," Cherise Everhard says.

"The storyline gets bogged down with Emma's ramblings of genetics, DNA, Hungarian histories and delicacies, and the repetitious fights and feedings between the four friends. It makes it difficult to weed through the prose to get to the heart and vitality of the story, which ends up being Emma's quest for a cure for her, her friends and the other vampires out there."

Duane Swierczynski offers mystery readers a Severance Package to ponder. "'His name was Paul Lewis and he didn't know he had seven minutes to live.' With that, the gates fly open and Severance Package is off and running. Within pages, we're treated to a death by potato salad. Then, the last words a dying man hears from his wife is, 'Well, this is ahead of schedule.' And that's just the first six pages," Dave Sturm reveals.

"Want characterization? Don't bother. Want emotion? There's only one -- rage. Want cold, hard logic? Not here. ... Want over-the-top action? In spades. Some people have compared this to the movie Three Days of the Condor. Not so much. Think more the machine-gun-leg part of Planet Terror -- but less tasteful."

Debbie Lee Wesselmann finds a story in Captivity. "The story starts out as a mystery. Dana Armstrong runs the South Carolina Primate Project (SCPP), a sanctuary for chimpanzees rescued from zoos, circuses and homes (where they were kept as pets). These chimps never learned basic chimpanzee behavior and could not survive in the wild, but the SCPP tries to guide them toward becoming more chimp-like, while conducting minimally-intrusive observational studies of their behavior," Chris McCallister explains.

"But one morning the chimpanzees are set free by an intruder. Nothing was damaged or stolen, and there were no protest slogans spray-painted anywhere. A stupid prank? An animal-rights protester intent upon freeing the chimpanzees, who cannot survive wild? It does not add up."

Mary Harvey gets to the root of Three Shadows cast by the Fates in this allegorical graphic novel by Cyril Pedrosa. "Pedrosa's easy, free-flowing pen captures the dynamics of the shifts in mood between adventure, suspense, and bittersweet longing. His fine-lined, scratchy style moves expertly between high detail and dark shading," Mary says.

"The fluidity is strong enough that Pedrosa comes as close as anyone has to making a flat image on paper actually seem as if it is in motion, so animated is his art. Lush, calligraphic lines reduce themselves to sheer abstract outline at times of existential despair or fill the page with sumptuous detail during one of the many peaks in action."

Let's step back and ponder for the moment a disgraced classic, Song of the South, a family-friendly movie that has been hidden away in the dusty archives of Disney censorship for far too long. "Far from degrading blacks, it celebrates their oral tradition. And Remus himself -- not a slave, as some argue, but a free man during the Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War -- is a wise, kind and good-hearted man whose message to his employer's grandson, young Johnny, still resonates through his stories," Tom Knapp argues.

"There is an innocence about this film that defies politics, and it's a shame that politics keeps it buried today. Many movies, from Gone With the Wind, The Godfather and White Chicks to countless American Westerns, portray certain cultures in a negative or stereotypical light, but that has never been a good reason to rewrite history or censor art. Heck, mothers (usually dead) and stepmothers (typically evil) have more cause to complain about their depiction in Disney films."

Molly Ebert takes a gander at P.S. I Love You, in which Gerard Butler, as Hilary Swank's late husband, sends letters from beyond the grave. "This movie was unexpected. It could have easily been a weak romantic comedy that raked in a decent amount of money by using big stars like Swank and Butler as bait. In fact, I'm sure it will only rake in a small amount of money, but it's not due to dangling bait from a weak pole. From the very opening scene this movie had punch," Molly says.

"Even though it was meant to be a simple romantic comedy, it has some power to spark insight into life and its possibilities. More importantly, it makes us ponder about our own possibilities: our potential to recognize the comedy in life even in the midst of tragedy and our potential for holistically knowing another human being on this earth. Which, let's face it, is very unlikely."

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!)

29 August 2009

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

I really wish I could stop sneezing.

We have another diverse trio of musical selections for your consideration today. Please, dig right in!

Charlie Zahm shares Precious Memories & Other Special Songs of Faith with this new release. "When I first became aware of Charlie Zahm, it was through his Celtic music. But obviously that was not enough to contain his musical talents and his rich baritone voice, which has been called 'one of the finest voices in the world of Celtic music.' His repertoire has expanded to include maritime music, early American and Civil War songs, hymns and just about any other song his audiences might request," Bill Knapp says.

"Always a deeply religious man, Zahm recently released a CD of his favorite hymns titled Precious Memories & Other Special Songs of Faith. Zahm says the CD is a tribute to his parents, Charles and Colette, 'who have given me so many precious memories.' Of course, that hymn is the opening track."

Give Way, a band of four sisters, is Lost in This Song. "There may only be 10 tracks on Lost in This Song, but each one will hook the listener, and you will not want the track to end and neither will you want to reach the end of the album," Nicky Rossiter says.

"The new CD by Give Way is a finely tuned mixture of songs and instrumentals that also manages to magically mix the familiar with the new."

Jacanda is Skimming Stones, but the band isn't getting much bounce from Michael Scott Cain. "The British band Jacanda appears to specialize in pretentious folk-rock. The songs are about the emptiness of life, the failure of love, from horrible things that happen to the Amish to a fantasy about a psychotic episode. They sort of scream their importance," he says.

"In all, listening to Skimming Stones makes you feel as if you've been trapped in a room full of terribly clever college sophomores with no way to get out. I see it appealing to a very young and very serious audience that has never experienced true feelings but has read about them a lot."

David Jerome fails to deliver the guffaws in Roastbeef's Promise. "I love comedy. Who doesn't like a good chuckle? So, I was very excited when I received a copy of Roastbeef's Promise by David Jerome several months ago. I was ready for some belly laughs," Wil Owen states.

"Unfortunately, what I had was several months of torture as I had to force myself to read a story that I did not enjoy at all. In fact, I never once made it through an entire chapter in a single sitting. If I got through 10 pages in a shot, I was doing good. I would have quit reading less than halfway through, but since I had to review this book, I had no choice but to keep going. My journey felt as long as Roastbeef's travel around the lower 48 states!"

James L. Nelson concludes The Confederate Navy with Thieves of Mercy. "Deprived of his ship in the previous book, Glory in the Name, Bowater and his crew await the completion of their new ironclad vessel in Memphis, along the war-torn Mississippi River. But Union troops and ships are advancing, and it's not certain Bowater will be able to weigh anchor in time to evade capture," Tom Knapp says.

"Although Nelson continues to spin a good yarn in the finest naval tradition, I found Mercy to be a weak successor to Glory. In part, it's because Bowater spends far too much of this novel without a ship to command, and the saga of a navy captain requires a ship. Too, the character of Mississippi Mike is a little too broadly drawn; a caricature of a caricature, he heaves his way into the forefront of every scene at the expense of the more interesting characters around him."

Barbara Vine unleashes The Minotaur in this recent mystery novel from Vintage. "Most mysteries start with a murder, then proceed to uncover who did the deed. In Barbara Vine's The Minotaur, we know almost from the start there's going to be a murder because the story is told in flashback. The question is who the victim will be," Dave says.

"After the murder and the entrance of police into the story, Vine unveils an elegant series of surprises, right down to the last page, that tie up most, but not quite all, of the mysteries."

Michael Chabon digs into The Mysteries of Pittsburgh to Eric Hughes' satisfaction. "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is Michael Chabon, all right. There's the author's superior way with words, the coming of age/sex identification thing and so on. But what's different about this one compared to other Chabon's I've read is this: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is freakin' simple," Eric says.

"Then again, it's not. At all. Chabon's debut novel is one of those books that on the surface isn't about a whole lot. Dig deeper, and you'll discover healthy chunks of important material."

Tom Knapp is out swinging with Spider-Girl in volume two, Comes the Carnage. "In the alternate-future timeline of The Amazing Spider-Girl, Peter and Mary Jane Parker not only have a teenage daughter, the titular May, but also a bouncing baby boy named Ben. If you don't like to see youngsters terrorized, don't read this book," he says.

"This book also has a few major weaknesses, not the least of which is Li'l Carnage, which was a bad idea all around. But for me, the worst moment was when Peter -- after being beaten, kidnapped and tortured -- exerts superhuman strength to break his bonds ... so he can hurry home and make a few phone calls. Huh? This guy was a big hero back in the day, right?"

Mark Allen takes a look at a classic with Robert E. Howard's Myth Maker. "If the comics medium is an art form (and I believe it is), then one has to assume the existence of some 'masterpieces' of sequential entertainment. Understand, I don't throw that term around willy-nilly, if I ever have at all. I'm about to, however," he says.

"In 1999, a publishing company called Cross Plains Comics produced what is, in my mind, one of the most entertaining, innovative and downright beautiful works in comics. With the (achieved) intentions of bringing attention and doing justice to the works of Robert E. Howard, Myth Maker was a collaboration of amazing writing and breathtaking art work, all accomplished by some of the most talented professionals in the industry."

Cecil Kuhne takes things in a chilly direction in Near Death in the Arctic: True Stories of Disaster & Survival. "These accounts of polar exploration were excerpted from the written journals and books by the explorers themselves. It is amazing that they could write at all after days of suffering from exertion and cold," says Barbara Spring.

"This book is not for the faint of heart. The best thing about it is that the stories are true and written by very adventurous souls."

Tom Knapp suits up for adventure with The Guild, a web-based series about a band of misfits whose only social connection is an online roleplaying game. "I am comfortable enough with my fanboy status that I can admit, up front and without shame, that I discovered The Guild solely through writer/producer/star Felicia Day's involvement in the trendsetting webshow, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, which itself came into my field of vision because it (Dr. Horrible, not The Guild) was conceived and directed by Joss Buffy the Vampire Slayer Whedon and his creative kin," Tom says.

"The story works because of the quirky characters at play here -- I'd call them caricatures, but I fear they are all too representative of their actual MMO-playing ilk (of which Day proudly declares herself a member). Eccentric doesn't begin to describe it."

Dave Sturm, meanwhile, shares some thoughts on The Uninvited, a new film directed by brothers Charles and Thomas Guard. "This movie uses the same plot twist as 1972's The Other, penned by actor-turned-author Tom Tryon. The Other is a better movie," he says.

"Still, a very creepy movie. Interestingly, both flicks center on good-evil siblings and both are directed by brothers."

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!)

22 August 2009

He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.
- Joseph Conrad

This week has been an adventure!

This week's selection of music reviews is brought to you by the letter "H" and the number 3.

Highland Way takes its sound from Caledonia to California. "The 10-song collection is primarily covers of songs we've heard many times," says Becky Kyle. "The band's style and harmonies put me much in mind of Wolfstone or Fairport Convention. But they're not afraid to add their own twist to tradition, which makes the CD a different and fun mix to listen to."

Chris Harper & the Sharade Band work their magic on Blues is My Life. "Once more, in the music of Chris Harper & the Sharade Band, the international nature of the great American music form -- the blues -- becomes clear," says Michael Scott Cain.

"The result is a wide-open blowing session with Harper's harmonica well out in front. His is the dominant voice and the dominant instrument. Instead of a together blues band, we've got a major soloist and his backing group, who toss around the occasional solos among themselves. The result is good but at this point, Harper is still to closely connected to his influences. He and the band need to find their own voices."

Chris Hickey shows a little Razzmatazz with this new folk recording. "Hickey is a longtime Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter who has likely passed across the radar of folk fans of the past 25 years (albeit as a brief, interesting, anonymous blip)," Edward Whitelock says.

"Hickey is not one to waste a note or let any kind of studio noodling interfere with the force of his words. And increasingly throughout his career, he has devoted the power of his words not to the big idea but to the expansive poignancy of the small things. In his attention to the emotional impact of the little details -- a nail sticking up from the otherwise smooth surface of a kitchen table, an accidental flash of a view from a windblown window shade, the silent service of love that is taking out the garbage each evening -- he calls to mind the early work of the Nicholson Baker, who could craft a novel out of a bored businessman's escalator ride."

Amber Benson and Christopher Golden continue (and, sadly, conclude) their Ghosts of Albion series with volume two, Witchery. "I shan't reveal the architects of evil in the book, but I will say that every time they made their presence known, particularly when in pursuit of one of their victims, I was unsettled. Perhaps even tense. By the end, my nerves were a little raw, so much so that even a glimpse into the echoes of ancient Camelot failed to ease them." Tom Knapp says.

"Damn, this book is DARK, and its abrupt ending trebled the level of horror, at least. But that doesn't mean Witchery is not without a sense of humor and romance, either. I find myself genuinely liking and caring for these characters, which makes it all the more troubling that no third book from the series has appeared on the horizon."

Jason Starr flashes a Fake I.D. to get this story rolling. "This tale by Jason Starr bring us a sweet-natured young man working as a bar bouncer while trying to find gigs as an actor whose gambling addiction brings him to the depths. The owner of the bar where Tommy Russo works treats him like a son. He meets a nice girl. An actress friend wants to team up with him on a stage project," Dave Sturm says.

"Things are going pretty good...."

David Leavitt failed to carry his promise through to the end of The Page Turner. "Penned by an author I at the time was unfamiliar with, The Page Turner turned out to be a (mostly) pleasant surprise -- right up until one of the worst literary endings I've ever come across. Ever," Eric Hughes proclaims. "So much so that the brief novel, without hesitation, fell from my recommended list to those I'd warn others to proceed with caution.

"It's abrupt, unsatisfying and in no way relates to the rest of the book. It's as if David Leavitt got to a point where he threw his hands up at the story and quickly cheated an ending just to be done with it."

Tom Knapp pays a visit to the Ghost Whisperer, but The Haunted leaves him cold. "I have never watched the Ghost Whisperer TV series. So I entered into Jennifer Love Hewitt's fictional, supernatural world for the first time with The Haunted, the first volume in the spin-off comic-book series," he says.

"First, I have to say that, to my novice eyes, this is Buffy Lite. While there are no vampires to slay -- this is a kinder, gentler brand of occult fantasy -- the story shoots for the same kind of hip, edgy, oh-so-witty dialogue that feels derivative and, as often as not, falls flat. Second, the artistic focus on cleavage and legs -- especially those of Melinda Gordon, Hewitt's character -- tells you exactly what demographic this book is targeting. Not that I have anything against Hewitt's cleavage and legs, mind you, but really, does it have to be so obvious?"

Tom unfairly compares artist Mike Wolfer to the past while reviewing a new Western tale from graphic novelist Garth Ennis. "Streets of Glory, a hard-bitten Western saga set in Montana at the tail end of the 19th century, would have earned much higher marks (from this reviewer, at least) if writer Garth Ennis had never crossed paths with artist Steve Dillon. Taken solely on its own merits, this story of a member of a dying breed of frontier gunslinger would have been a resounding success," Tom says.

"The story, collected from a six-issue miniseries, is a fast but thorough read, and Wolfer's art is good, solid stuff -- right down to the blood and viscera that Ennis so favors in his work. Unfortunately, Wolfer's style pales in comparison to Dillon's, who set a very lofty bar when he and Ennis brought the Saint of Killers to life in their highly acclaimed Preacher series many years ago."

Nigel James shares his Lessons from the Road in this book about touring with the Christian rock group Third Day. "The book is written in an interesting and engaging manner," says Becky Kyle. "Christians, members of Third Day's fan club and others just curious about what a rock star's life is like on the road will be interested in this book."

Dave Sturm is apparently trying to Drag Me to Hell.

"Sam Raimi's booga-booga-booga approach to horror film-making is on glorious display in Drag Me to Hell, with lots of smash zooms, grotesque corpses and assorted awful fluids and maggots flung into someone's face. He is the master. Eli Roth cannot carry Sam's lunch," he says.

"By the way, never let an old gypsy lady pull a button off your coat."

Mary Harvey says robots "have never been so adorable" as they are in Pixar's WALL-E. "This has to be the most creative thing Pixar may have done yet. 'Warm-hearted' is an overused cliche but this time the description could not be more accurate. WALL-E is a witty, whimsical and flat-out fun movie that mixes humor, sci-fi and action together to form a very enjoyable ride for people of any age," she says.

"The messages, large and small, about mass consumption, lazy morality and environmental abuse, are all over the film. WALL-E is clever without being heavy-handed, funny while conveying a serious message, and very good keeping that same message in the forefront while never compromising the intricacies of its characters and their all-too human interactions. Certainly the movie belongs in the higher reaches of its genre. It's more topical than most Pixar films but never in a pandering way."

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!)

15 August 2009

It's surprising how imaginative you can be with five people and 10 chairs.
- David Howey

The Carrivick Sisters find their niche on Jupiter's Corner. "Twin sisters Laura and Charlotte Carrivick have, since a tender age, been immersed in music together. Their style is based in bluegrass but also has a strong English folk influence. This new album, their third, features 11 original tracks and one traditional song," Andrew Morris says.

"Jupiters's Corner is an album littered with enticing tunes and songs from the heart, a must for all bluegrass and English folk lovers. Simply put, this is the best new album I've heard for a long while."

Catherine MacLellan find their music in Water in the Ground. "Water in the Ground is two CDs, the other sleeve carrying Dark Dream Midnight. The latter is singer-songwriter Catherine MacLellan's first recording, privately released in its original incarnation. It accompanies this, her third and most recent," Jerome Clark explains.

"There is much to like here: MacLellan's, er, dark and dreamy voice, the lovely melodies set in tastefully uncluttered arrangements courtesy of a small band of sympathetic pickers. The title song is among the prettiest tunes I've heard so far this year, so lovely that I am inclined to stop whatever I'm doing each time it comes drifting through the speakers. It's too good to serve as mere background music. Much of the rest isn't far behind."

The Arabesque Music Ensemble charges in with The Music of the Three Musketeers. "The Three Musketeers of the title are three composers: Zakariyya Ahmad, Muhammad al-Qasabji and Riyad al-Sunbati. This CD presents vocal compositions by these three traditionalists of the 20th century," Dave Howell says.

"The length of the works may test the patience of Western listeners not used to this type of music. On the other hand, the length and repetition of musical themes has a hypnotic effect. And the unfamiliarity of this genre makes it quite exotic to most Westerners."

Michael Connelly uncovers a mystery in The Scarecrow. "This is not a 'who' novel, but a 'how' novel, basically a police procedural. The evil one is identified fairly early, and then it's a cat and mouse game. This is what John Sanford does all the time, and I think it makes him a lesser writer," Dave Sturm reports.

"Connelly has learned a lot about internal FBI stuff, including jargon, which he shares with the reader, over and over. He's learned a lot about computer server systems, which he also shares over and over. One thing he nails, though, is an inside look at the slow death of the newspaper business."

Michael Aye makes a valiant effort -- but still comes up short -- with The Reaper. "It is unquestionably the nut of a good story," Tom Knapp says. "But Michael Aye's The Reaper, the first in a series of Fighting Anthony tales at sea, lacks the development and polish that a more practiced writer could have given it.

"To make matters worse, Aye has an awkward style with dialogue; it sounds rather like his characters are aware that an author is listening in and writing down their speech, so they're doing their utmost to sound important and literary instead of speaking naturally."

Richard Ford takes a look at The Lay of the Land, and Eric Hughes takes another look at Ford. "It's been about 12 years since the events of Independence Day, and Frank Bascombe not only seems to be stuck in about the same place as we last left him, but also is boxing with some pretty tough troubles: he's single again, he has cancer, his ex-wife may have rekindled her feelings for him (about a decade too late), his daughter can't figure out her sexual preferences for the life of her, and his son is a pathetic nobody," Eric says.

"Though I enjoyed viewing Frank from a new angle -- with compassion, and a care for him to be happy -- The Lay of the Land felt like a disappointing end to the series (if it really is Ford's final Sportswriter book). The narrative lazily trots along, with hardly anything actually happening to Frank -- or, unfortunately, being discovered by the reader. Oftentimes I felt generally bored after a few dozen pages and would rejoin the story on a different day. That can't be good."

Mary Harvey takes a philosophical turn after experiencing Good-bye, Chunky Rice. "What does it mean to need to find yourself, and how do you gather the strength to undertake that journey? The indefinable sadness of saying goodbye and the terror of the unknown is the subject of Craig Thompson's Good-bye, Chunky Rice, which won a Harvey when it was first released," she says.

"Thompson's stories are unapologetically open, as raw as the unhealed wounds he explores so deftly. At times, the honesty can be a bit overwhelming. Thompson has a true gift for capturing the experiences that make us human and showcasing them in stories that are loaded with wisdom and charm. You may have some tears in your eyes when the (somewhat incomplete) bittersweet ending rolls around, but you will be glad that you read it."

Tom Knapp asks that universal question, Whatever Happened to the Daughter of Spider-Man, in this look at the first volume of The Amazing Spider-Girl. "The story runs a gamut of events, from a student council election campaign to supervillains Black Tarantula and Hobgoblin," he says.

"May, like Peter before her, conceals her extracurricular activities from her family and, naturally, feels a tremendous amount of guilt for doing so. All in all, it's a lot of fun, particularly for Spider-Man fans who wish Peter had never grown up (who also have Ultimate Spider-Man to enjoy) and for young, female readers who wish more heroes were like them."

James L. Nelson puts a new face on an American traitor in Benedict Arnold's Navy. "Sure, it's easy to focus on events such as Washington's winter at Valley Forge or his triumphant Christmas assault across the Delaware River, but it turns out the chances of America's winning the war would have been slim to impossible if Arnold hadn't played a vital role to the north," Tom Knapp says.

"In matters of defense and offense, strategy and leadership, Benedict Arnold was unmatched in his service to the cause of American independence. Although he had his detractors at the time, he numbered George Washington among his friends and supporters. And, if events had taken a slightly different course, he would be remembered as one of America's greatest heroes."

Jack Olsen examines the life of Keith Hunter Jesperson in I: The Creation of a Serial Killer. "Olsen recounts Jesperson's story in two parallel storylines. One is told in the first person, from Jesperson's point of view, starting with his first murder of a mentally incapacitated barfly through his multi-state crime spree and incarceration. The other story is an objective, journalistic look at Jesperson's childhood and life in the media," Jessica Lux-Baumann says.

"This book is different from any other true-crime story because Olsen allows Jesperson to speak uncensored (occasionally accompanied by footnotes with direct contradictions of Jesperson's version of events)."

Dave Sturm doesn't pull any punches. In this case, our reviewer takes exception to some of the things said about the movie Baise-moi. "This movie has been compared to Thelma & Louise, Nikita and Natural Born Killers. What rot," he says.

"The filmmakers want to say, 'We are French and we show the nasty truth about society.' But the film says, 'We are French and we make pretentious claptrap containing gratuitous porn.' If this is nihilism, it's faux."

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!)

8 August 2009

If there's another world, he lives in bliss;
If there is none, he made the best of this.
- Robert Burns

On Aug. 7, 2004, Rambles.NET editor Tom Knapp was wedded to the sweet, kind, generous, loving -- did we mention hot?? -- Katharine Danemark, and he is thrilled to say five years of marriage have not changed his mind one bit. He's still glad he married her, and he's decided he might as well keep her around for a while longer, too.

Stephen Fearing is The Man Who Married Music. "Stephen Fearing is active on Canada's music scene as both a solo performer and a member of the roots-rock band Blackie & The Rodeo Kings. The Man Who Married Music -- which sounds like the title of some venerable folk tale but is also the title of an autobiographical song, a very nice one -- is a self-selected 'best of,' consisting of Fearing's favorite cuts from the eight albums he has issued under his own name over more than two decades," Jerome Clark says.

"In common with some other, older singer-songwriters I hear these days, Fearing brings Richard Thompson, a huge influence on what one might call post-folk artists, to mind. The songs are structured broadly like ballads (in the folk sense) but are infused with pop and rock influences. The lyrics address the anxious concerns of a grown-up who sees the shadows darkening all around him. Sentimentality is nowhere to be found, and hope, what there is of it, is of the sobered kind."

Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg, founders of the Klezmatics, access a trove of Jewish holiday music in tsuker-zis. "The music is clearly Jewish despite a few added electronics and nonstandard instrumentation. That characteristic is hard to describe but easily recognizable, with its minor keys and often mournful quality, even in this collection of holiday music," Dave Howell remarks. "London and Sklamberg successfully capture the feeling and spirituality, and this project is much more interesting than an exact historical recreation. Some of the songs are reflective and some are joyous, but all 14 tracks flow smoothly together."

A pair of Benjamin Appel's classic pulp novels gets new life in this reprint edition of Life & Death of a Tough Guy and Sweet Money Girl. "The paperback original pulp novels of the 1950s and early '60s were mostly formulaic, plot-bound stories of criminals, their victims and the cops (public and private) who try to stop them. Benjamin Appel was one writer who could be counted on to break the formula," says Michael Scott Cain. "His books may have been written more than 50 years ago, but they are still fascinating."

Peter David revisits the Peter Pan legend in Tigerheart. "The author has done of remarkable job, both of recapturing the voice and style of Peter Pan writer J.M. Barrie and of creating something new and exciting that builds on, but does not simply copy, Barrie's timeless work," Tom Knapp says.

"Tigerheart is rich and wonderful, sometimes a little wistful, even sad, but still conjuring the fantastic at every turn. This book is funny and lovely and warm, a pleasure for young and old alike, and it deserves a spot on the shelf reserved for books you'll read -- and share -- time and time again."

C.S. Forester's classic series of adventure in the British navy was launched in 1948 (for the title character, if not the author, who did not write the series chronologically) with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, and Tom makes a long-overdue trip to the place where it all began.

"The young officer in training is awkward, unsteady and unsure of himself, and he doesn't make friends easily," Tom says. "But he is passingly brilliant when it comes to naval mathematics, and he is possessed of superior bravery and cunning that rise to the surface at opportune times. He is, on occasion, downright lucky. He is, at the same time, uncertain and burdened with an overblown sense of duty and guilt. Altogether, these qualities combine to Hornblower an auspicious start to his career."

Elizabeth Merrick taps an endless well with This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America's Best Women Writers. "This short-story collection is worth the cover price for editor Elizabeth Merrick's opening essay alone. Merrick does not hate chick lit (she freely admits to enjoying and respecting several titles), nor does she want it to die a painful death. ... With this collection, Merrick simply wants to shine the light on modern literary talent. She wants to share these stories with the world -- stories about pushing emotional limits, experiencing new cultures, setting personal challenges (a steak-eating contest, anyone?) and musing about social status and careers," Jessica Lux-Baumann says.

"The genius of this collection is that there is no overarching theme or message; these stories are unified by their numerous distinctions. The title clearly attracts media (and blogger) attention, but I hope that readers of both genders pick this one up. The writers may be female, but their written words prove that they are talented writers, pure and simple."

C. Nathan Coyle examines the 17th volume of the Graphic Classics series, appropriately titled Science Fiction Classics. "Yet again, Graphic Classics pulls off another winning contribution to their expanding line of visually retelling classic works of literature. It should come as no surprise that a collection of science-fiction stories is successful, as this type of visual medium is perfect for capturing and celebrating imagination," Nathan says.

"Even if you've read all of these stories in their original format, this impressive and dynamic collaboration of writers and artists have produced an exciting and entertaining group of stories that you're sure to enjoy over multiple occasions."

Tom Knapp, on the other hand, is less enchanted with the second volume of The Astounding Wolf-Man. "The first volume of The Astounding Wolf-Man left me wanting more. The second, unfortunately, mostly left me yawning," he says. "Fans of writer Robert Kirkman's work will tell you he likes to start off slowly and build to a dramatic turn, but the strategy fails if he loses his readers before the payoff."

Jake Halpern explores a modern passion in Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction. "Halpern takes the reader to children's talent conventions (complete with a $1,000-plus admission fee for the children and parents), to the world of Celebrity Personal Assistants (CPAs) and members of the celebrity entourage, and finally to the average American's obsession with all things celebrity, from the tabloid newsweeklies to the tour books for finding celebrity homes," Jessica Lux-Baumann says. "Halpern's skill lies in his ability to connect with his subjects, in his compassion for others, and he portrays the majority of his interview subjects as generally likeable, regular folks with ambitions that not all of us share."

Molly Ebert says the setting dominates the screen in My Life in Ruins. "When William Wyler directed Roman Holiday, it is said that he decided to film it in black and white for fear that the overwhelming beauty of Rome in full color would outshine his actors, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Perhaps Donald Petrie, the director of My Life in Ruins, should have considered similar cautionary measures when filming Greece. Not only were his actors competing with the stunning Grecian landscape, but they also were wrestling with a storyline and writing that would have made Wyler call it a day before even beginning," she says.

"For My Life in Ruins, the country of Greece stole the show without much effort on its part. By the end, you don't particularly care what happened to the characters, but you do have a sudden yearning to drop everything in your life and steal away to Greece."

Dave Sturm, meanwhile, takes a New York holiday with The Wackness. "Set mostly in the Upper East Side (the swankiest part of Manhattan), The Wackness is steeped in the language, mores and attitudes of that peculiar American tribe called New Yorkers. These people sweat stuff that most folks don't give a second thought to, but they blithely disregard things that others would worry about. They are amazingly blunt. They drink, use drugs and smoke cigarettes (teenagers are welcome in any bar). They have sex in phone booths," he says. "The dialogue is killer. The soundtrack is dead on. The acting is sharp. It's both funny and sad."

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!)

1 August 2009

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

Figures. Just about to go mow the lawn, and the rain starts falling. Alas! On a more interesting note, allow me to testify to the wonderfulness of drenching salmon patties in that sweet nectar called "the cosmopolitan" before grilling them. Yum!

Husky Burnette seeks a little Snake Oil Salvation through the blues. "Burnette's bio says he's 'following in the family footsteps of rockabilly kings Johnny Burnette and Billy Burnette' and refers to the blues as a religion that Burnette is preaching," Gregg Thurlbeck opines. "Hopefully before he releases the album slated for this fall, Husky Burnette will discover that the blues is more varied and subtle than Snake Oil Salvation manages to demonstrate."

The Gamelan of Central Java series of recordings has produced many fine volumes. Today, Dave Howell takes a look at two, X: Sindhen Trio and XI: Music of Remembrance.

"Gamelan is an ancient form of music that has orchestras using instruments of which xylophones, gongs and related instruments are the most prominent, with added flutes and bowed types. These two CDs have orchestras of various configurations up to 17 musicians. Gamelan has some similarity to other Far Eastern music, although gamelan orchestras have a unique sound because of the instrumentation," Dave says. "As always with these releases, they contain beautiful, meditative, exotic, otherworldly music."

Mac Traynham and Shay Garriock defy easy descriptions with Turkey in the Mountain. "Show somebody a banjo and fiddle, and if the instruments are played in a recognizably Southern style, that person will almost surely pronounce the result 'bluegrass.' Chances are it isn't," Jerome Clark asserts. "Very much an ensemble music, bluegrass is hardly ever played without the companionship of guitar, bass, mandolin and (in more modern bands) dobro. Besides, authentic Appalachian roots notwithstanding, bluegrass as such was invented in the mid-1940s in the context of the commercial country-music industry. Banjo-and-fiddle duets, however, were playing in America in the 18th century.

"Traynham & Garriock, carriers of a tradition older than old time, preserve Appalachian music as it was when it was essentially a recreational pursuit, suited to private and public entertainment, conservative in sound and temperament, warm and familiar to those who heard it, the property of amateurs because professionals -- those who made a living at it -- were rare. Those who heard it were almost exclusively Southern and rural. Few academic folk-music scholars, then focused on the ballads of England and Scotland, were even aware of it. Most, in fact, were convinced that the New World had no folk-music traditions of its own."

Michael Flynn's Eifelheim "is certainly not your typical science-fiction novel," Gregg Thurlbeck states.

"The unevenness of the weighting of the novel, between its modern and historical aspects, is its only real failing. Certainly Flynn's writing is both engaging and accomplished. He manages a large cast of characters remarkably well. The list of characters, provided at the front of the book, sets out 50 names for the portion of the book set in the 1300s and another nine people for the modern chapters. Yet one rarely feels any confusion at a name mentioned in the text. Flynn deftly individualizes the array of townsfolk by providing the reader with details of occupations, interests and personality traits without overwhelming the plot. This does make for a rather dense read but rarely does one feel swamped by detail and longing for a return to the action."

Fiona McIntosh's Emissary "is the second book in the Percheron saga, picking up from where the first book, Odalisque left off," says Donna Scanlon.

"It may be the second-book syndrome again, but the story failed to engage me. When you strip away the trappings, it seems like a tired plotline dressed in new silks: a young ruler falls in love with a woman that his evil scheming mother dislikes. The mother enlists her minion to assist her in getting rid of the young woman. Meanwhile, a motley assortment of heroes waits in the wings to come to her aid, while in the background a Greater Danger Lurks."

Isobelle Carmody injects an ecological stance into Little Fur: The Legend Begins. "The brown, furry cover is what first drew my attention to Little Fur. The environmentally friendly plot surrounding a half-elf, half troll girl trying to save a magical grove from urban encroachment directed my decision to read it," Tom Knapp says.

"Rich in new-age philosophies regarding the natural world, Little Fur will certainly give readers a lot to ponder. If it makes a few youngsters give a little more thought to the value of green and growing things in the world, author Isobelle Carmody will have accomplished something fantastic. That said, the story may be a little too dry and a bit too humorless for some young imaginations to grasp."

Keith Thomson tells all in Gus Openshaw's Whale-Killing Journal. "Gus Openshaw was a cat-food cannery worker working 'the worst stinking job you can get' when a super-sized sperm whale with a B-shaped scar on his head ate Gus's wife, kid and right arm. The whale got away, but only for the time being. With his life insurance settlement, Gus sets out on a voyage of revenge," Jessica Lux-Baumann says. "Gus's two-month ocean odyssey is a whirlwind of zany adventures told in smart prose and accompanied by scrimshaw illustrations. ... Who knew that Internet exchanges, renegade military forces, F-15 fighter jets, robotic armies, pirates, drug dealers, lost European colonies and icebergs would be involved in a modern-day whale hunt?"

Tom Knapp takes a look at volumes two and three of the newlywed Green Arrow & Black Canary series from DC Comics, Family Business and A League of Their Own. "The problem with these two slim volumes is that they should have been one," he complains. "At a scanty 128 pages and a hefty $17.99 cover price, each book should at least provide a complete story about our two newlywed heroes and their friends. But no, this is one story -- divided in two, I can only assume, so DC can make twice as much on sales. For shame, DC!"

Mary Harvey is back in Essex County for Jeff Lemire's third volume, The Country Nurse. "The final chapter in the Greek-drama tragedy that composes the lives of the LeBueff family comes to a close as long-held secrets are taken from darkness into light, loose ends are finally tied down and new worlds filled with possibilities are opened up," Mary says. "Lemire's art is as breathtaking as ever. He has even expanded his form somewhat to try interesting new angles and layouts that only add to his painfully wonderful writing. His 'scritchy' scratchy, plain black-and-white style carries the whole story so well that words are almost unnecessary, so clear is the imagistic rendering of the landscape that is emotional as much as physical."

Roy Ratcliff took a dark journey of his own in researching and writing Dark Journey, Deep Grace: Jeffrey Dahmer's Story of Faith. "Wisconsin minister Roy Ratcliff, through a series of unexpected developments and coincidences, was offered the opportunity to spiritually counsel serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer while Dahmer was serving 15 life sentences," Jessica Lux-Baumann says. "Ratcliff describes a strong friendship from which both men grew and developed spiritually. Ratcliff was subject to harsh criticism for counseling a man that most believed was unfit for Heaven. His story, however, is not that of a jailbird conversion, but of a friendship with a deeply troubled man who long knew that his urges were demented but was unable to control them."

By the way, congratulations to Jessica for her 100th Rambles review!

Molly Ebert sings the praises of Rocky Balboa, the coda to Sylvester Stallone's long-running Rocky series. "Throughout the entirety of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa, we feel as if we are watching a man and his creation become one. Compared to the vast landscape of film directors in our world, there are few who can truthfully claim complete creation of their subject, and Stallone has the privilege of being one of them," she says.

"I couldn't deny after watching the film that Stallone had somehow gotten it right. With this sixth installment in the Rocky series, Stallone has wiped away all of the bad press that brewed in the months awaiting the film's release. Instead of a continuation of the disastrous and embarrassing Rocky V, we sat down to watch a beautiful ode to the spirit of the original Rocky."

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!)

25 July 2009

This parrot is no more. It has ceased to be. It's expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It's a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn't nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. It's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.
- John Cleese

There is always so much to do!! But the good news from Editor Land today is that he just procured a brand spankin' new Albert Alfonso bodhran. Woohoo!

Eric Bogle is still every bit The Dreamer so far as his music is concerned. "This is both a joyous and a sad review to write. With this, the 15th album release by Eric Bogle on the Greentrax label, he says he is 'hanging up his touring boots' -- and, having seen him perform live, I can say that is truly a sad milestone," Nicky Rossiter says.

"The album closes appropriately with 'The Last Note,' and although it is a great song the fact that it is finishing this album saddens me. The song is a wonderful evocation of a musical performance that once again showcases Bogle's way with words, and even if you never appeared on stage it can give you the feeling of how it feels to close a show. As he says, the music can 'tear me to pieces and somehow make me whole.' Listen closely to this album and you will understand."

Bill Noonan sings about The Man That I Can't Be. "My disillusionment with 'Americana' music dawned only -- as always -- slowly. One day, long after it should have, the realization came to me that the average self-identified practitioner/critic/fan is only marginally more likely than any other pop-music consumer to know who Roscoe Holcomb, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Charlie Feathers were. 'Roots,' in short, usually turn out to run no deeper than the guitar-rock and country-pop of a decade or two or three ago," Jerome Clark says.

"As I hear Bill Noonan, though, I am reminded of what I once thought an Americana genre would be about. Yeah, there's guitar rock here, but it's better than the generic stuff. One reason is that Noonan (a leading figure in the Charlotte, N.C., music scene, which includes my friend and sometime songwriting partner David Childers, who contributes vocal support here) is an older guy who's taken in a whole lot of music and living. The songs not only ring true but attest to influences from America's rich vernacular strains -- folk, country, r&b, rockabilly, bluegrass, Roy Orbison-style melodic pop -- integrated into a whole suited to Noonan's distinctive approach. It helps, too, that Noonan is a gritty, compelling singer and an exceptionally expressive songwriter."

Dafni expresses a quality of old-time sameness on Charlie's Lonely Sunday. "Dafni has a lot of different influences on this CD, mixing a little alt-country, cabaret and even a bit of Cajun into the sound," Dave Howell says. "The lyrics are simple, perhaps too much so. ... This might be purposeful, however. With Charlie's Lonely Sunday, Dafni seems to be recreating a past era when songs and romance were uncomplicated."

Orientexpressen tells An Unfinished Story in this musical release from the Balkans. "Orientexpressen had been in existence for 30 years when they released this CD, a live recording at the Music Museum in Stockholm," Dave says. "Although the band plays folk music of the Balkans, the musicians are from Sweden. It can be assumed that the music on An Unfinished Story is authentic; you will not be able to hear much Swedish influence here."

Charles de Lint brings the lore of Australia to bear in Dingo. "Anyone who doubts the potential richness and depth of a young-adult novel should read Dingo to prove the lie. A simple tale of love and shapeshifting, it demonstrates admirably how a well-written YA tale can appeal to readers of any age," Tom Knapp says.

"The storyline and character development are certainly not as deep as we've seen in many of de Lint's stories, but then again, most of those tales are more adult-oriented and often involve members of his recurring Newford and Ottawa casts. This stand-alone, young-adult novel is fully formed and reader-friendly, an easy access point for anyone who has never read de Lint's work before and a refreshing variation from the norm for his fans of long standing."

Theodore Taylor keeps a wary eye out for the Sniper. "Ben Jepson, nearly 15 years old, is taking care of his parents' wild game preserve while they travel to Africa after the man who was supposed to be running the preserve is hospitalized after a car wreck. Ben is managing just fine until, over the course of three nights, someone releases and shoots some of the big cats. On the fourth night, Ben tries to watch for the killer and is shot at, although he is not injured," Donna Scanlon says.

"This is an exceptionally readable book, and except for the lack of more advanced technology, the novel does not seem dated. Ben is an engaging character who garners the reader's sympathy only immediately, and how cool is it when your housecat is a cheetah? Try this one out on a reluctant reader."

Kevin J. Anderson casts an eye on Enemies & Allies, a novel drawn from the world of DC Comics. "Anderson's previous DC Comics novel, The Last Days of Krypton, was a timeless, tragic tale with action and adventure. It could have been millennia ago or it could have been yesterday -- the time didn't matter, as the themes it explored are eternally interesting," says C. Nathan Coyle. "In telling of the first meeting between Superman and Batman in Enemies & Allies, Anderson takes a drastically different approach by anchoring these characters into a very specific era of the 20th century: the 1950s. Eisenhower is president, McCarthyism is running rampant and the Soviet Union has just launched Sputnik and the Space Race.

"Sounds interesting enough, right? Well, it is interesting ... enough. Sure, it's charming to read about Bruce Wayne rubbing elbows with Marilyn Monroe or raving about those 'new' James Bond novels; however, that kind of superficial interest is all that emerges. Any time Anderson gets close to exploring something deeper, he backs off."

Tom Knapp is forced to take a dim view on All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder, the latest foray by Frank Miller into the Dark Knight's grim world.

"The text -- both the dialogue and Batman's, Robin's and everyone else's inner monologues -- is endlessly repetitive and needlessly profane. The plot is simple and shallow, lacking any real direction beyond Miller's attempt to shock his readers. But, after so many stories that have actually shocked us with some purpose, this bland and witless parody falls flat. It's not edgy, Frank, it's just violent," Tom says. "On the plus side, Jim Lee's art is simply fantastic."

Mark Allen takes a shot at the Punisher in A Man Named Frank. "Classic westerns are one of my favorite indulgences. Well-defined heroes and villains, as well as clear lines of right and wrong, black and white. That's 'classic,' in my book. That's also an apt description of The Punisher: A Man Named Frank from Marvel Comics," he says. "The story isn't much different from the modern-day origin of this hard-edged scourge of crime."

Hoopla for Mark, by the way, who today hits the century mark with his 100th review for Rambles.NET!

Robert M. Hazen and James Trefil try to educate a modern society through Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy. The authors, Gregg Thurlbeck says believe that people today "ought to have a basic understanding of science, an understanding sufficient to follow news stories concerning such things as climate change, new medical breakthroughs and the latest images from the Hubble space telescope.

"It compiles the basics from the vast landscape of science in a mere 350 pages of readable text. The authors, for instance, do an admirable job of explaining the often counterintuitive concepts underlying relativity," Gregg says, but adds: "I still came away from certain chapters foggy on the core concepts."

Molly Ebert has a lot to say about Roger Donaldson's The Bank Job, but most of it's bad. "There is simply nothing there, nothing between its ears, a film devoid of all creative thought and spark," she says.

"This film can best be described as a 'Tradition of Quality' (a term used by critic Francois Truffaut); it follows all of the established traditions of previous filmmakers on the qualifications for a suspense/thriller movie, and this is supposed to produce a high-quality film. I will admit that Donaldson's film is pristine in following this. ... When it comes down to it, the movie is simply a series of shots that create a plot -- absolutely no more, no less."

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!)

18 July 2009

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another which states that this has already happened.
- Douglas Adams

Jerry Holland was an amazing fiddler. More importantly, he was an amazing man who touched many people's lives. Jerry died Thursday night after a long, brave battle with cancer -- an illness that could never separate the man from his music. He will be missed by all who knew him or heard him play.

I had the great fortune to see him play on several occasions over the past decade or so. I first met him at a dance in 2000 and learned from his at an invaluable fiddle workshop back in 2001. The last time I saw him perform was in October 2007.

Although born in Boston (to Canadian parents), Holland was exposed to Cape Breton music from an early age, and he grew up to become one of the masters in a genre literally bursting with talent. He moved to Cape Breton at age 20, and it's hard to imagine the island without his unflappable smile. He played and wrote music with heart, and I cannot think of a better epitaph for this courageous, talented man.

We'll miss you, Jerry.

Editor's note: My father has been in the hospital this week, which required a few shortcuts along the way of putting this week's edition together. I apologize, but the music section was among the sacrifices (as was mowing the lawn, which I'm not really all that upset about). Enjoy what we have, and hurry back next week!

Tom Knapp will buck the tide and say Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince was disappointing.

"For my part, I gave up on J.K. Rowling's prose somewhere around her fourth Harry Potter novel, which seemed to be the point when she decided that 50 words would never do when 5,000 could be written. But I've enjoyed all of the Harry Potter movies ... 'til now," he says. "Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince begins very slowly, and it never picks up the pace except for a few fits and starts along the way. The movie is grim, ponderous and, dare I say it, dull. And surprisingly, for a movie largely marketed toward younger viewers, a large number of scenes are just downright inexplicable."

See below for more movie reviews in this week's edition.

The fiction section todays has a nice bit of variety: Nordic fantasy, Victorian horror and a trio of hard-boiled mysteries.

Katherine Langrish spills a little Troll Blood to conclude her trollish trilogy. "The third volume stands well on its own with enough backstory to both to inform the reader and make the earlier books appealing," Donna Scanlon says. "Characterization is Langrish's strong suit; the plot seems almost episodic. The writing style is lively and accessible.

"It's an enjoyable book, and it ends just when it should."

Amber Benson and Christopher Golden expand on the popularity of their web-based world, Ghosts of Albion, with Accursed, the first in what appears to be a two-book series. "Accursed is creepy and mysterious, at times bawdy and a little unsettling," Tom Knapp says.

"The characters and their world are an appealing addition to the realms of modern fantasy, and Benson and Golden seem well suited to developing them further. Certainly their descriptions of Victorian London, from polite society to the seedy and impoverished underbelly, are evocative of the age."

Harry Whittington scores a trey of hard-boiled mysteries in this new package from Stark House: Body & Passion, Like Mink, Like Murder and To Find Cora. "In the 1950s and '60s, if you needed a paperback original novel written, Harry Whittington was your go-to man. Writing under a dozen names, he cranked out more than 100 novels, so many that dozens got lost -- he lost track of his pseudonyms and had no record of the books; they had to be resurrected by scholarly detective work after his death," says Michael Scott Cain.

"A suspense writer, Whittington specialized in fast-moving action, featuring men at the end of their ropes, simply trying to make their way, who got caught up despite themselves in desperate situations -- usually because of a woman."

Avatar, a fairly new entrant in the comics publishing world, makes a good impression with Chronicles of Wormwood. "The road to Hell is paved with ... mimes?" Tom Knapp wonders. "That's one of the many startling discoveries to be found in Chronicles of Wormwood, a new collection by writer Garth Ennis that I hope is only the start of more good things to come.

"Chronicles of Wormwood is a stand-alone book, but I hope Ennis will take this story further. Echoing many of the sentiments found in his acclaimed Preacher series -- and certainly matching its many blasphemies and irreverencies -- Wormwood is poised to become even better."

Batman's allies Battle for the Cowl in this so-called big event that left reviewer Mark Allen cold. "I wish I could say that the result lives up to the hype and promising premise," he says. "Turning to the last page, expecting a payoff, I was left with the feeling of having my pocket picked, instead. Boos and hisses for DC, the real villains."

Mary Harvey is so very happy she Let the Right One In. "Well, finally. A great vampire movie," she says.

"What makes Let the Right One In one so great is that it is, at long last, the proper sort of vampire movie. Vampires are very, very interesting characters, and that's how this movie proceeds: as a series of character studies wound around a tight plot with a very unexpected ending that still flows directly from the story. There's no high school hormonal nonsense going on, but there is raw sexuality in the sense that it is about adolescents on the sexual borderline between childhood and teenagerhood. This makes for drama, actual drama, not predictable teenage romance crapola about young girls, with absolutely no self-esteem to speak of, who worship cool boy-band escapee bloodsucking dudes. This isn't your black-garbed, purple-lipstick-wearing, Bauhaus-listening, Gothic-worshipping, older sister's vampire movie. None of that, here."

Karen Elkins keeps our holiday spirits up with Once Upon a Christmas. "Once Upon a Christmas is a Canadian film that combines the war between good and evil with sibling rivalry and springboards into the modern North Pole," she says. "Once Upon a Christmas is a wonderful family film that is especially appropriate for families that have lost a parent. However, it is solid entertainment for anyone who loves Christmas or has ever believed in Santa Claus. This is one great holiday film that all the younger children will want to see again and again."

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!)

11 July 2009

Modern man lives increasingly in the future and neglects the present.
- Loren Eiseley

Workin' on it.

Matt Murphy performs Songs at Random for his fans. "Murphy and friends have produced an album of wonderful songs old and new that will not only benefit the Alzheimer Society of Ireland but also the listener, casual or otherwise," Nicky Rossiter says. "The arrangements and production on Songs at Random are never tangled up in cute adornment or over elaborate backing. These are strong songs, simply sung, and are all the more powerful for that."

Jim Byrnes is out and about with My Walking Stick. "If -- as it was to me -- Jim Byrnes' face looks curiously familiar, it's because (in common with English folksinger John Tams) he works as a character actor on television and elsewhere," Jerome Clark says. "If you aren't Canadian, however, you probably have not have heard his music. I'm not, and I hadn't, but the promo material that came with my copy of My Walking Stick informs me that his previous albums have won him numerous Juno awards (the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Grammy).

"The CD provides yet more evidence of how impressive that nation's roots-music scene is; testimony, too, to how unfortunate it is that most of it is so little known outside its boundaries."

Arty Hill & the Long Gone Daddys is Back on the Rail with their first recording and their second album release. Confused? Jerome sorts it out! "Originally self-issued in 2005, Rail documents the impressive chops of this Baltimore-based outfit -- consisting then of Hill (vocals, acoustic guitar), Dave Chappell (Telecaster) and Craig Stevens (drums) -- possessed even as it was coming out of the gate," he says. "They're one fabulous band, and Hill is a 'billy singer who delivers the narrative -- sad, bitter, wry, humorous or odd -- with absolute authority.

"He is, moreover, a country songwriter of the first order. As a traditionalist in an age when mainstream 'country' has devolved into an instantly disposable substance, he may be out of time, but he's never out of rhyme. And like the greats who came before him, he loves his wordplay."

Richelle Mead turns off the AC and enjoys a little Succubus Heat. "Mead is such a gifted storyteller and she has me so invested in these immortals, it's scary," Cherise Everhard enthuses. "The thought of having to wait until April 2010 for the next installment seems like a torture I might not be able to endure, but if I do I know it will be an unusually long few months. The romantic in me needs Georgina to get her happily ever after, to live her dreams, but as a succubus bound to hell, how is that possible?"

Richard Russo crosses the Bridge of Sighs in this recent novel. "Unlike today's James Pattersons and Danielle Steels, who can bust out multiple novels in a single year, Richard Russo is an author of patience, spending a number of years in crafting captivating and engrossing worlds for his readers to playfully dissect. And his projects aren't rainy-day reads, either. His most recent novel, Bridge of Sighs, weighs in at a hefty 640 pages. Obviously I wasn't able to complete it in a single sitting," Eric Hughes says.

"But that's exactly what I like about Russo. Instead of writing a story that strictly follows one character overcoming a single obstacle during the course of a couple days or weeks -- as less ambitious authors tend to write -- Russo's scope is way broader. He captures the lives of multiple characters over a period of many years, sometimes decades, as in the case of Bridge of Sighs."

Athol Dickson offers The Cure in this recent work from Bethany House. "The writing is elegant and stately; the descriptions of people and places are rich and descriptive. Unfortunately, the rich descriptions weigh down the narrative, making it drag at an agonizing rate," Donna Scanlon frets. "The plot twists seem a bit incredible and sometimes too convenient, and some of the coincidences strain credulity as well. Characterization is also detailed and descriptive and serves its purpose although again, Dickson seems to wander into too much introspection her as well."

Mark Allen gets a little sweet, maybe even downright romantic, through his reading of Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Vol. 1. "Mary Jane blends likeable characters, believable situations and that famous teen angst, made so by early runs of The Amazing Spider-Man, and combines them to form a work of pure comics entertainment," he says. "There are no world-conquering villains (only a single appearance of a small-time super-powered bad guy), no incredibly intricate subterfuge and NO crossovers. Even Spidey himself shows up rarely, and only so much as to stoke Mary Jane's romantic fantasies."

Tom Knapp gets another look at Boom!'s Zombie Tales series, this time looking at the second collected edition, Oblivion.

"Did the Boom! team manage to maintain quality? Yes. As always in a collection of this sort, the quality of writing and art varies from story to story, but when the talent you're drawing on includes the likes of Joe R. Lansdale, Steve Niles, Chee and many more -- well, you know you have a pretty good bet of liking something," Tom says. "There's plenty more here, from zombie art to zombie Shakespeare and zombie film critiques. Each tale is short, punchy and as fun as zombies can be."

Larry Dossey shares discourse on The Power of Premonitions. "Larry Dossey, one of the best and best-selling authors of books on healing and alternative medicine, goes the extra step in this book; he takes on the the existence of premonitions, or glimpses into the future, an ability that we label paranormal and that he insists should not be labeled paranormal at all," says Michael Scott Cain. "Dossey is truly bothered by the fact that much of mainstream science still refuses to recognize the existence of psi events, no matter how compelling the evidence and, in this book, wants to do something about that. ... The Power of Premonitions, however, does not assume foreknowledge, and that's both a source of strength to the book and a possible weakness. He spends a lot of time proving what should not, in the 21st century, need to be proven. We know this stuff exists."

Mary Harvey takes a peek into The Mindscape of Alan Moore. "Originally released in 2003, this little-known documentary made by a film student as a class project previously had limited availability. Its re-release into most major retail markets has finally given it greater attention," Mary says. "The reactions to the film from fans and critics have ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other. Some reviewers are so blisteringly negative that it's a wonder the webpage hasn't caught fire, while others are so glowingly over the top that it's equally obvious they're writing hagiography.

"That Alan Moore can provoke such contradiction is part and parcel of what makes him such a fascinating writer. With his wild beard and long hair, he looks like the world's coolest English teacher, one for whom future college kids would be signing up for practically at birth. Moore, author of The Watchmen, probably the most infamous graphic novel of all time, and other seminal works such as V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, is a prolific and skilled weaver of tales and one of the field's most popular writers. His keen perceptiveness, intimate knowledge of all things archaic and pagan, and unique insight into human nature have made him a tale-spinning genius that has given him the status of a writer who is a celebrity both inside and outside his bailiwick, a thing he finds most peculiar."

Oh, we never get tired of Karen Elkins' Christmas movie reviews, even when it's in the midst of summer. Today we offer a look at Silent Night, which she says "is the psychological suspense drama" of the holiday season. "It is a serious, deep, thought-provoking movie that will touch your soul and remind you what Christmas is all about," Karen says. "This is a true story from war-torn 1944 Germany -- the story of how one woman enacted a Christmas cease-fire and changed lives forever."

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!)