5 December 2009 to 6 February 2010

6 February 2010

Theater is life. Cinema is art. Television is furniture.
- Patty Wentz-Daly

So, where's this massive snowfall everyone keeps talking about?

Steve Eaves carries us to Wales with Moelyci. "It's amazing some of the musical talent hidden away in the remotest regions of Cymru/Wales. On this CD, singer-songwriter Steve Eaves of the group Rhai Pobl, from the former slate mining area near Bangor, North Wales, strikes out on his own with this bluesy, pensive evocation of the Welsh landcape and soul," David Cox says.

"This is in many ways a brilliant record, perhaps the best to come out of Wales in some time. The tunes have integrity individually and work together as a whole disc, with musical variety, gravitas, solid musicianship and production values, and a rootedness in a sense of place."

Kev Rowe takes his singer-songwriter stylings Into the Gold. "The music definitely has a Southern folk-rock feel, despite Rowe's New York state background. Rowe's vocals are predominantly pleasant, although he misses the mark on rare occasions," Wil Owen says.

"Kev Rowe is a talented songwriter when it comes to melodies, without a doubt. In the lyrics department, on the other hand, he is nothing to write home about. And unfortunately, other than a few hooks, this CD has not had a lot of staying power with me. Into the Gold is good, not great."

Dale Ann Bradley makes her presence felt in this new bluegrass CD, Don't Turn Your Back. "A native of Kentucky, Bradley grew up in poverty so severe that electricity and running were unknown, and in a preacher's family so strict that musical instruments were proscribed. In her adult years she was a regular on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and a member of the latter-day Coon Creek Girls. She's one of the best singers in bluegrass, winner in 2007 and 2008 of the International Bluegrass Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year," Jerome Clark says.

"Don't Turn Your Back is a rarity: an album that should appeal to both committed fans and neophytes who would have sworn they didn't like bluegrass."

Joe Louis Walker finds himself Between a Rock & the Blues with this new release from Stony Plain. "Walker (no relation to T-Bone as far as I know) first recorded in 1986, and this is his 20th album. Though I know his early work, I lost track of him in the interim. Picking up on him in 2009, I encounter a major blues artist at the peak of his powers," Jerome says.

"Between a Rock & the Blues fuses gospel, r&b, soul and (yes) rock, but it is at its essence a blues record -- thundering and scorching, yes, but never bombastic. Afire with emotion, the songs, in common with all true blues, deliver convincingly lived-in storytelling."

John Jorgenson has two new jazz CDs on offer: Istiqbal Gathering and One Stolen Night. "On these two albums, released the same day, Jorgenson shows the range and variety that gypsy jazz offers," says Michael Scott Cain.

"One Stolen Night offers us his standard road band, the John Jorgenson Quintet, in a program of small-group jazz that sounds like the old Django Reinhardt-Stephan Grapelli records from the 1930s," Michael says. "Istiqbal Gathering gives us Jorgenson in a classical setting, playing a concerto he wrote in gypsy jazz style."

Rachel Caine is Undone in the first book of her new Outcast Season series. "Although this is the first book in a new series, it might be more accurate to call it the first book in a spin-off of the Weather Wardens books. I would not recommend reading this book without having read all seven of the currently available books in the previous series," Belinda Christ remarks.

"That said, I loved this book so much that when I finished it, I turned back to page one and started over again. Caine's crisp style and rapid pacing move the story to an exciting cliffhanger conclusion."

Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner have pulled together a team effort titled Many Bloody Returns. "Many Bloody Returns gives us a fun take on birthdays and vampires and, in some cases, vampire birthdays. As with most short-story collections, the quality of the stories is a bit of a mixed bag, but all in all, I found most of contributions entertaining. In fact, as anthologies go, the ratio of good stories to mediocre is higher than usual," Belinda reports.

"You won't find anything profound or earth-shattering in this volume, but you will be satisfied long after the last page is turned."

Julian Stockwin continues the adventures of Tom Kydd in Artemis. "The young former wig-maker, who was pressed by the British navy and then found his true calling at sea, has moved on from his first ship, the bulky and ungraceful Duke William, and is now sailing as an able seaman aboard the fighting frigate Artemis. And, while William had tedious duty as a blockade ship off the coast of France, Artemis has places to go and things to do," Tom Knapp says.

"If anything, Artemis is too action-packed. It's a little hard to believe how much this little ship and its crew go through in a relatively short span. Stockwin might have worked a little more detail into his story and expanded the events of this book into two."

Allison Burnett uncovers the Undiscovered Gyrl in this blog-based novel. "Amy has just decided not to go to college for a year, and to kill time the 17-year-old begins to write a blog. Writing under the name of Katie, she amuses her readers with tantalizing tidbits of her life. By changing names and pertinent facts she is able to keep anonymous her sordid tales about sex, drugs, drinking and the dysfunctional relationship with her parents and much older men," Cherise Everhard says. "It is a hard book to set down, and the blogs are all interesting although some are simple, some childish and selfish, some are sexy and some are downright sad. While reading I wondered how someone so physically and mentally mature could be so emotionally immature. She was at once a child and a whore, innocence and corruption; half the time I wanted to smack her, the other half I wanted to hold her tight.

"I can highly recommend this read; on entertainment value alone I would give it the highest praise. However, the ending is unnecessarily dismal and leaves you with more questions than answers and no real closure. I hate that."

Miss Lasko-Gross makes A Mess of Everything in this new graphic novel.

"The sequel to Escape from 'Special,' A Mess of Everything picks up where the previous volume left off. Many of the elements established in the first book permeate this follow-up. Lasko-Gross utilizes the same short-story techniques; i.e. telling stories in one or two page shorts, which is the style that worked best for her in her first collection," says Mary Harvey.

"Lasko-Gross's spare, crisp writing has lost none of its flavor, while her ability to delineate mood is only improving, along with her talent for capturing human, lived perspective. The short stories carry the narrative along in sharp bursts. Basically, Miss is trying to grow up and is doing the best she can with what she has. Her support system consists of her confused parents and a handful of friends who aren't exactly the pick of the litter. Not that her parents don't love her; they are just a bit too new agey, not always able to understand how to help or discipline. As a result, she's kind of on her own."

Stanton T. Friedman is out to tell us what we don't know about UFOs in Flying Saucers & Science. "Friedman, who has been researching the field for more than 40 years, knows his stuff and doesn't waste readers' time telling them what they already know. He assumes a foreknowledge of the UFO field and spend most of the book refuting the claims of skeptics. He is nothing if not convincing," says Michael Scott Cain.

"Friedman's is a valuable book, a reasoned and calm discussion by a strong advocate, that is marred only by the fact that the author is not what you might think of as a graceful writer; his prose is stumbling and repetitive. The book needed a good editing job. Still, it constitutes essential reading."

Becky Kyle has a mixed reaction to It's Complicated. "Jane (Meryl Streep) and Jake (Alec Baldwin) have been divorced for 10 years now. He cheated on her with a younger woman, whom he later married. Jane continued her role as mother to their three children as well as owning a very successful, and might I add visually tempting, restaurant," Becky says.

"Enter Adam (Steve Martin), the architect for the new addition to Jane's lovely home, and you've got a love triangle building. Add to that son-in-law-to-be Harley (John Krasinski), and you've got an ensemble cast that's taking Nancy Meyers' hilarious lines and turning them into a visual treat as well. Probably the funniest performance in the whole film is actually Harley, who discovers the affair and tries to keep it secret from his fiancee."

Daniel Jolley is less than impressed with Ultraviolet. "Heaven knows I love watching a young woman kick butt every which way from Sunday, and there's nothing sexier than the bare-midriff look Milla Jovovich has going throughout this film, but -- and maybe I'm old-fashioned -- I sort of expect a movie to explain at least a few of its most unusual facets," Dan says.

"Obviously, the filmmakers just wanted to show 90 minutes of Jovovich doing what she does best, and the plot they threw together is really just a means to that end. The basic storyline is easy enough to follow, but far too many of its details go unexplained. As for the special effects and fight scenes, there's some really gnarly stuff on display here, but a lot of the CGI work is just overkill. Additionally, the cameramen are like kids with a new toy as they experiment with every angle known to man."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)

30 January 2010

How strange and wonderful is our home, our earth, with its swirling vaporous atmosphere, its flowing and frozen liquids, its trembling plants, its creeping, crawling, climbing creatures, the croaking things with wings that hang on rocks and soar through the fog, the furry grass, the scaly seas.
- Edward Abbey

Why does the furnace always fail on a seriously cold day?

Rachel Hair is the one with The Lucky Smile on this harp-centered CD. "One need only listen to the first track to be completely hooked. This is an artist who understands her instrument and is able to play it with such a degree of mastery that she is not locked into any genre; though her work is steeped in the traditional, it can by no means be classified as such. Hair is a powerful talent out of Scotland, and this album, her second, absolutely sparkles with her remarkable abilities and arrangements," David Connor reports.

"Featuring a strong mix of traditional pieces and original compositions, this album is not your run-of-the-mill Celtic harp album. Far from it. This is exciting music, ably arranged and performed, with heavy jazz influences it is just downright excellent."

Ramin Rahimi and Tapesh show us how its done on Iranian Percussion. "This is all percussion, as the title suggests, so it will only appeal to certain people. It is a great CD for those who like drums, however, with more variety than you might expect," Dave Howell says.

"Different rhythms and drum combinations are used on the tracks, which range from 46 seconds to nearly 10 minutes in length. They are done with a musical feel, with changes in volume and speed to add interest in the compositions. The drums are used as parts of an orchestra, so the sound is more akin to a marching band than to a sequence of solos, although there are some sections of call and response."

The Guggenheim Grotto makes its presence known with Happy the Man. "Several years after the release of their successful debut album Waltzing Alone in 2005, Dublin-based duo The Guggenheim Grotto continues to craft well-written, evocative folk-pop songs on their 2009 release," Elizabeth Delaquess says.

"The Guggenheim Grotto has a slick, radio-friendly pop sound, but bandmates Mick Lynch and Kevin May avoid overwrought, cheesy lyrics and instead create music that has wonderful depth and sensitivity."

Chris Smither casts his perspective on folk and blues music on Time Stands Still. "Sometimes when I hear an artist -- say, Chris Smither -- I find myself thinking of the various directions the young Bob Dylan could have taken his music. That's another way of saying how a music based in rural folk and blues could be carried past the 1960s revival into an urban world far removed from the backwoods historical and cultural experiences that created traditional -- actual -- folk music," says Jerome Clark.

"Smither's preferred musical language, with variations, is a rolling, atmospheric, typically mid-tempo folk-blues melody, mostly acoustic but sometimes flavored with electric guitar, with largely original compositions. The writing is elegant, usually melancholy-sounding even if the words aren't necessarily, its themes ranging from the state of a relationship to the state of the nation, though in the latter instance Smither's touch is too smart to reduce to sloganeering and tub-thumping."

Lesley Young gets Inside the Canadian folk scene. "Inside is the second CD from a lady who has been performing (including acting) for more than 25 years. Inside reaches a little beyond simple folk-rock to hit other genres such as jazz, country and even pop," Wil Owen says.

"Lesley Young has a bit of a mousy voice that is almost cute. You can tell she poured heart and soul in to her Inside project. There are some good tracks on this relatively short CD, which clocks in at 37 minutes. I have to wonder if Young will ever have a wide audience, though, as she sounds almost like a little girl at times -- not the mature woman who wrote these songs. To my mind, there is a disconnect between the lyrics and the voice that brings them to life that throws me enough to only recommend this CD with a word of caution. I don't think the combination will work for everyone."

Michael Thomas Ford brings Jane Austen back to life -- as a vampire, no less -- in Jane Bites Back.

"Jane Bites Back is not an action-packed novel, but it is light, airy and fun. Ford very nearly pokes fun at himself, Jane Austen fanaticism and the modern vampire genre with this yarn, but it's in a knowing way that shares the joke with the reader. And, while somewhat irreverent, the book is never disrespectful; indeed, you can tell Ford has boundless respect for Austen, the author, and he gives Austen, the character, plenty of charm, wit and proper English resolve. Plus, there's a dog in peril," Tom Knapp says.

"This is the first book in a series. I'll look forward to the sequel to see what Jane does next."

William H. White beings the War of 1812 with A Press of Canvas. "While White does not have the grace or depth of writing that Forester, O'Brien and Nelson have demonstrated so decisively in the past, he tells a good and lively story that certainly places him in the forefront of contemporary nautical writers," Tom says.

"Biggs is a capable seaman and a likeable protagonist, and he is surrounded by a variety of diverse and interesting characters. While few of the supporting cast receive much in-depth development, we can look for more growth among them in the next two books in the series."

Lyn Benedict, a.k.a. Lane Robins, makes her first fantasy splash with Sins & Shadows. "This urban fantasy takes place in a world where the gods of Rome are real and just as capricious as the mythos describes them to be," Becky Kyle says.

"The closing leads me to believe this is the first book in a continuing series. The concept is interesting enough for me to consider picking up the second book, but I would probably have to read a chapter or two before I actually made the purchase."

Ron Costello is Racing to the Bell with a fantasy-adventure-suspense novel "that includes terrorist plots, animals, telepathy and life in the poorer parts of Philadelphia," Chris McCallister says.

"This is a very fast-paced, easy-to-read story, with short chapters, few typographical errors, well-developed and interesting characters (human and animal) and an ambitious, imaginative premise. It also talks about important contemporary issues: school violence, terrorism, the treatment of animals in captivity, the problems in inner-city schools. I do not know if the author is from Philadelphia, but he clearly knows the city well, and he cares about it and its people. There is a lot of heart in this book."

Mark Allen gives his nod of approval to Essential Daredevil, Vol. 1. "As a general rule, I find it bad form to have a revolving door of artists on an ongoing title featuring a continuing storyline. There are two exceptions to this, the first being an obvious one: anthologies. The other exception is not as obvious. It is any book in which the artists are some of the best the business has ever seen," he says.

"In this volume, fans will find Daredevil as he was originally envisioned: the carefree, devil-may-care swashbuckler, whose quips and one-liners could give even a certain wall-crawling hero a run for his money. Younger readers who have never seen anything other than the grim, morose, more Batman-like Daredevil ought to give these Stan Lee tales a shot."

Molly Ebert kicks off a trio of movie offerings with Public Enemies. "'Do you know what I truly appreciated about Michael Mann's Public Enemies? It was the fact that not once did I feel like I was watching an event-by-event biopic of legendary bank robber John Dillinger. True, it is meant to portray some of the most important events of his short-lived life during the Depression, but the story on a whole has a refreshing rhythm of ebb and flow that seems to hold and rock the audience instead of hurtling it through a set timeline," she says.

"We get to see a side of the 1930s that is simply about circumstance and timing, and the men who exploited this to their advantage. Dillinger is not just the center of the narrative, he is the catalyst for everything that goes on, and that is why we seem to sway with the story between the creation of the FBI and Dillinger, a man with no known motives other than that he has found a 'business' he loves and that 'business' seems to love him back."

Wil Owen takes an amused look at Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer's Cut). "Each of the DVDs in the set is broken down in to a surprisingly coherent collection of material, which is totally unlike Monty Python's "Flying Circus" -- a show that constantly made left turns when you weren't expecting it or, at times, simply stopped in the middle of a sketch," Wil says.

"While some information might be missing from this otherwise intriguing DVD boxed set, Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer's Cut) is an excellent introduction or fond look back on John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and King Arthur himself, Graham Chapman. Unless you are an uber-fan and know all there is to know anyway, you will probably feel like you got the whole truth, not 'almost' the truth."

Daniel Jolley gets a bit campy with Clawed: The Legend of Sasquatch. "That being said, I really didn't think Clawed was all that bad of a movie. It doesn't really bring anything new to the table, but it doesn't leave out any of the necessities, either: unknown 'monster,' several victims, blood, annoying jock, nerdy guy and two attractive young ladies. It even throws in the bonus of some beautiful scenery up in the forests of Washington State," he says.

"Unfortunately, though, our Sasquatch isn't much to look at (it looks like what it is, a guy in a pretty ratty costume), and all we ever see him do is just stand or crouch out of sight and sometimes run through some fields. The fact that none of the actual attacks appear onscreen is another negative."

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!)

23 January 2010

Beneath the favorite tale of the moment a deeper story always lies waiting to be told.
- Thomas Moore

It boggles the mind, just how many books and CDs come flooding through our doors each week. We wish we had time and manpower to review them all! If anyone out there is interested in helping us stem the tide, drop the editor a line and discuss the possibility of joining our team! We can always use more good writers!

Also, please consider using the various Amazon.com links around the site to make your purchases. When Amazon customers use our links, it helps defray our operating costs just a little. Every bit helps!

John Wort Hannam checks into the Queen's Hotel for his fourth CD. "Hannam, a former schoolteacher who appears to be in his early middle age, has been playing guitar barely more than a decade, having taken up the instrument after hearing a Loudon Wainwright III record," Jerome Clark says.

"Neither country nor bluegrass, Hotel sits comfortably within Canada's latter-day folk-ballad tradition -- the Scots-Irish background unmistakable -- and represents it honorably. Besides, it's good to know that a song titled 'Tonight We Strike' does not mean at the barbarian hordes that need to be bombed until they learn to love freedom. Then again, he's Canadian. One looks forward to more."

Terry Tufts is fighting The Better Fight for a purpose. "I first saw Terry Tufts play at the Quarter Moon Coffee House in Bloomfield, Ontario, two decades ago. He was a fine guitar picker then and, if anything, he's improved his guitar style. His lyrics are thoughtful and more mature. He sings pretty well, too, a strong folksy tenor with some range," David Cox remarks.

"Here on The Better Fight, his seventh album over those last two decades, this skilled musician presents himself as a committed environmental warrior and makes a strong statement for a green future. The title track appears to be his personal statement about living simply, getting off the grid and back to basics. He delivers it in a gentle, sincere and believeably nouveau-rustic way, showing the influence of a long line of Ottawa-area musicians, specifically Ian Tamblyn."

Transcend with Time provides A Haunting Presence on this new-age recording. "Transcend with Time is the one-man creation of Mark Mendieta from Brownsville, Texas," Wil Owen says.

"As a general rule, A Haunting Presence is not a bad transcendental CD. I have a few misgivings on a couple of tracks that other listeners might overlook. There was only one track I truly disliked," he adds. "Otherwise, this CD makes a good background CD when you don't want the music to take your entire focus. For the most part, it sets the mood of tranquility quite simply."

Sarah Ndagire and Pedson Kasume explore an African sound on Traditional Music of the Bantu Women & Folktales of the Baganda Women from Uganda, Vol. 1. "This CD is perhaps too esoteric for many listeners, since all the music and folktales are in African languages that are obscure to most Westerners. However, it has the relaxed and joyful atmosphere that is characteristic of African music," Dave Howell says.

"This uncomplicated music is quite listenable."

Tom Knapp had a chance to chat with Ursula Knudsen, the worldly fiddler of gypsy jazz band Fishtank Ensemble. "Gypsy music has a wild, untempered energy ... that coincides very well with the punk movement," Ursula says. "It's pretty intense party music. Who doesn't respond to that?" Read more about the band in Tom's interview about leaving the mule caravan behind.

Tatiana de Rosnay touches on events during and following the Holocaust in Sarah's Key. "Sarah's Key is an extremely moving and well-written novel that I could not put down. Apart from the exposition being a bit long-winded, this book is riveting, and I can now understand why de Rosnay had to be so pedantic about her characters and their backgrounds. This is essential in order for the story to reach its final crescendo," says Risa Duff.

"The book has two stories juxtaposed with a mysterious twist, and it all culminates into a poignant but optimistic ending."

C.S. Forester's ninth novel in his famous nautical series focuses on Commodore Hornblower in the Baltic Sea. "Hornblower, as always, attacks both military and diplomatic duties with an inspired brand of genius and, as usual, readers will be treated to his thrilling exploits at sea as well as on land, culminating in the defense of Riga against a tireless siege army," Tom Knapp says.

"C.S. Forester continues to advance Hornblower through the Napoleonic wars with a keen eye for historic detail and the flavor of the sea. I could read this series forever, I think."

Gordon Zuckerman turns his eyes toward World War II in the first volume of The Sentinels, Fortunes of War. "I enjoyed the writing style as Gordon is adept at both action sequences as well as dialogue. My favorite bit of action is a hair-raising chase scene through the Alps. Gordon's love scenes might be a little lacking, but this is a book primarily about money and war, not romance," Wil Owen says.

"I was left a little disappointed in the uneven character development. There are six main characters, yet I only cared about a few of them by the end of the story. As a war novel, this book was only OK. As a financial thriller, it did a little better."

Mark Allen wants to tell you about a Unique reading experience. "Writer Dean Motter and artist Dennis Calero put together a sequential tale that is not unique in name only. Though tales of two worlds are fairly common, this one manages to pull off an air of originality as the main character visits a world where night is day, and vice-versa," Mark says.

"As a whole, Unique is a worthwhile comics endeavor, and is recommended for older readers."

Edward G. Kardos offers "a simple but profound prescription for improving our lives" in Zen Master Next Door, according to Michael Scott Cain. "Just live in the present moment and you'll pretty much be OK," he says.

"Like all good teachers, Kardos aims to teach by parables, and that is both the strength and the weakness of his book. He never preaches or judges -- in fact, he counsels against judgment over and over -- but two things quickly become apparent: one, while the author does not lecture us, his teacher characters lecture the learners in the stories. People don't discover; they are told and then they get it. And two, the stories all have the same basic formula so that after a while a sameness seeps in."

Molly Ebert has a few words to share about the Antichrist. "My guess: Lars von Trier had a hell of a time defending Antichrist against feminists and women in general. I'm not inferring that it was deserved, and I'm not saying that I have any proof of such altercations, but the film has some mighty daring sentiments. Even I couldn't be sure if von Trier was against or advocating what turned out to be a blatantly negative view of female human nature," Molly says.

"Personally, I don't have any quarrels with von Trier, because I can't know for sure if this film represents his viewpoint or if it is a commentary on the viewpoint of others. The film is a fascinating look at the extremes of self-blame and guilt, and there is so much to take in that I could probably write three more reviews focusing solely on the other aspects of the film. So, go see it, simply because something this lush and horrifyingly insightful doesn't come along all too often."

Becky Kyle certainly isn't Up in the Air about this film starring George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman and Vera Farmiga. "Despite being listed as a comedy, the story here is poignant and painful and truly one of Clooney's best roles," she says.

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!)

16 January 2010

Death is more universal than life; everyone dies but not everyone lives.
- A. Sachs

I just spent six days reporting on the Pennsylvania Farm Show. Don't talk to me.

Norah Rendell and Brian Miller join forces for the Celtic CD Wait There Pretty One. "I was quite honestly caught off guard by Wait There Pretty One. I enjoy Irish/Celtic music and was surprised to find this collection of talent," Wil Owen says.

"Wait There Pretty One is easily in my top five finds of 2009 (although it was released in 2007)."

Sarah Lee Guthrie leads family and friends on a musical journey with Go Waggaloo. "Go Waggaloo is a collection of children's songs written by various members of the Guthrie family. Although Sarah Lee gets the main credit, it's very much a family affair. She, her husband Johnny Irion, father Arlo, various Guthrie children and family friends such as Pete Seeger and Tao Rodriguez Seeger all sing and play on the record and the songs. Sarah Lee, though, does get most of the leads," says Michael Scott Cain.

"The main charm of the album is its living-room feel. It doesn't sound like a professionally produced album and, in this case, that's a compliment. It's as though everyone is sitting around the fireplace singing and clapping along, tossing in a rough, untested harmony here and there or singing unison on the chorus."

Jerome Clark takes a gander at two blues artists and their new CD releases: Al Basile's Soul Blue 7 and Darrell Nulisch's Just for You.

"Nulisch's music, with its echoes of Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, is framed in punctuating horns and sinewy guitar licks and propelled by sweet/tough vocals. It's focused -- in common with nearly all r&b -- on romantic relationships, mostly failed ones. Even the celebratory songs, which pop music more often than not drenches in syrup, feel gritty, true and lived-in sincere," Jerome says.

"At moments, Basile brings Mose Allison and even Van Morrison to mind, not because he's an imitator but because he's the product of the same influences, with a comparable musical and literary intelligence," he adds. "The sum of its influences and much more, Soul Blue 7's sound is always bright, swinging and smart."

Magic Brook plays solo acoustic guitar on The Source: Two Hands, One Guitar. "It has the mellow atmospherics that you would expect. It also has a good deal of variety, even with a length of more than an hour," Dave Howell says.

"Brook never goes for speed. What makes him unique is the intricacy of his playing and his sense of melody and well-thought-out tune structures."

Victor & Leo supply the Latin sounds on Nada es Normal. "If you like easy listening, you may enjoy this album. The voices are pleasant enough, although the lyrics aren't going to excite many listeners," John Lindermuth warns.

"Despite a variety of instruments and voices that blend well together, the songs just sound too similar. The songs have a simple romantic quality and may do as background or dinner music. But I don't see them competing with some of the more popular Latin stars."

Kaitlin Hahn continues her coverage of Celtic Colours with Tunes for the Mira at Marion Bridge, featuring Mairi Campbell, Sabra MacGillivray, Abby Newton, Kim Robertson, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Manus Lunny, Troy MacGillivray and Shane Cook. "The talent at this concert was stellar, so I was anxious to get to it," Kaitlin recalls.

Julian Stockwin launches a nautical series with Kydd. "Like many in the grand tradition of Forester and O'Brian, Kydd is set aboard a British vessel during the Napoleonic wars with France. But, unlike great heroes such as Hornblower and Aubrey, young Thomas Kydd has no truck with the quarterdeck. No lofty captain, not even a lieutenant or midshipman, Kydd is a landbound wigmaker pressed to sea and set to work among the common sailors on Duke William, a ship of the line blockading French ports," Tom Knapp says.

"It's a refreshing perspective that sets Kydd apart from most books in the genre, and it's certainly an enjoyable ride seeing things in the Royal Navy from a landsman's point of view. In fact, Stockwin's expert use of naval jargon -- often without explanation or definition for the reader -- might seem like a weakness, but in the case of Tom Kydd, it seems to hammer home his own feelings of confusion among the many masts, sails, ropes and pulleys he must master."

P.N. Elrod pulls together a collection of urban-fantasy yarns surrounding "one of the most stressful, unnatural events ever devised by humankind: a wedding," aptly titled My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding and including stories by L.A. Banks, Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine, Esther Friesner, Lori Handeland, Charlaine Harris, Sherrilyn Kenyon and Susan Krinard. "Overall, the collection has some gems, although I found some paste alongside the jewels. Any review of this book would be remiss if it didn't include the word 'uneven,'" Belinda Christ says.

"All in all, I would recommend My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding to fans of the genre, but not enthusiastically. The hits are great, but the misses sometimes miss the mark by a long shot."

Susan Cooper's novel Greenwitch marks the midpoint of the author's landmark saga. "The third book book in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, Greenwitch is one of the best as a standalone story," Sarah Meador says.

"Still, Greenwitch suffers a little to be more firmly a part of the larger series. Cooper's writing already lends an air of eternal mystery to the otherwise simple adventure. The often overt references to the overarching plot are unnecessary and distracting. Coupled with characters making promises about the future that read an awful lot like theater previews, the otherwise involving Greenwitch is sometimes made to sound like a minor incident by its own main characters."

The third book in The Sword series by the fabulous Luna Brothers is Earth. "Earth continues Dara Brighton's quest for vengeance against the ancient elemental powers that killed her family. It is not quite as exciting as the previous two books in the series -- Fire and Water -- in part because it's more of the same. Mostly, however, it pales because of the ease in which Dara and her two friends track down the villain," Tom Knapp says.

"Earth is the weakest of the three books so far, but it sets up a big finish in the final volume, which I can only presume will be called Air."

David Blackmore throws open the history books to explore Blunders & Disasters at Sea. "The history of the sea is filled with tales of disaster, from the unavoidable -- sudden storms, hidden rocks and the like -- to the stupid mistakes that remind us why some people should never be allowed to stand on the deck of a ship," Tom Knapp says.

"The stories are brief, ranging from under a page to four or five for more involved incidents -- the longest, about a Nazi maneuver through the Channel that left the British Navy floundering, is 10 pages. But each entry is packed with detail that will keep both experienced seamen and armchair sailors absorbed."

Becky Kyle says Sherlock Holmes is "definitely not a film for the Holmes purist, but I somehow think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would not object to this contemporary rendition of his classic detective.

"The film is fast-paced and takes us through a grittier, more polluted London than you'll find in, say, Mary Poppins. Sherlock is not afraid to get his hands dirty and he's definitely depicted as a brilliant but dissolute individual. Everything happens so quickly that you are really going to need to pay attention to keep up with the clues in this action-packed epic." Congratulations to Becky for her 100th Rambles.NET review!!

Tom Knapp suggests you stay far away from The Guardian. "A great many B-grade horror movies are predicated upon the assumption that people will make stupid decisions in scary situations," he says.

"In The Guardian, the climactic assumption is that a young and fit couple, when menaced by a woman who wants to steal their baby, will flee a bustling Los Angeles hospital packed with potential witnesses and rescuers to take refuge in a dark and empty house. When a bad thing happens there -- in this case, their suburban home is beset by wolves -- the hapless dad will of course choose to run with his infant into the dark and stormy woods that just happen to connect to their backyard."

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!)

9 January 2010

If a man walks in the woods for love of them, half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed as an industrious and enterprising citizen.
- Henry David Thoreau

Pete Seeger was captured Live in '65. "Let's be blunt about it: live recordings by Pete Seeger lean to the unlistenable. Live recordings by anybody are as often as not a hit-or-miss proposition, but in concert Seeger is wont to cast himself less as the star attraction than as the director of a giant campfire singalong. If you like that sort of thing, then, well, you like that sort of thing. Even if -- unlike me -- you count yourself in that number, though, you probably have no particular desire to hear the results preserved on (metaphorical) wax. My personal philosophy is that if I want to hear myself sing out of tune, I'll do it in the shower," Jerome Clark says.

"On the other hand, Live in '65 -- culled from a heretofore unreleased tape of a concert at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Music Hall on Feb. 20 of that year -- is not only listenable but largely enjoyable."

Bon Iver (an intentional misspelling of the French term meaning "good winter") is the most recent musical incarnation of folk artist Justin Vernon, an effort that also consists of Michael Noyce, Sean Carey and Matthew McCaughan. "The name originated from the environment where Vernon created the first album, a remote cabin in northern Wisconsin during the winter of 2007," Kristen Druse remarks.

"Bon Iver's sound on For Emma, Forever Ago is incredibly clear and pure. Vernon's falsetto is soothing and sounds almost tentative, but this simply increases the impact of the emotion so prevalent in his words. His music reflects exactly how and where it was made: a man reminiscing in isolation."

The Roe Family Singers celebrates old-timey and mountain music with The Earth & All That is In It. "The Roe Family Singers offer up one of the purest and most direct samples of this idiom that I have ever experienced. Guitar, banjo, dobro, autoharp and a haunting singing saw occupy the instrumental landscape of this album, effectively backing the vocals without ever stepping on them," David Connor says.

"Here, the idiom is primary. This is no star vehicle, no shining example of virtuosity. No, this is an example of the music and the style being out front, while the performers -- admirable, talented and capable all -- are standing humbly behind the idiom, holding it forth for public view. To dive into this album, is to take a cold and at times, harsh, view into a time of scraping a living from an unyielding earth, of helping neighbors raise their barn and suffering through the deaths of loved ones."

Coco Montoya is presented to the masses in The Essential Coco Montoya. "If you want to know just how good Coco Montoya is, all you have to do is listen to 'Sending Me Angels' on this 'best of' CD. The song is a ballad, its theme redemption, and Montoya brings all of his strength, skill and emotion to," Michael Scott Cain says.

"Other artists have done the song, but none have found their way into its soul the way he does. His vocals are dead on, his guitar licks perfectly suited to his interpretation and the rhythm section moves the tune perfectly. It's a masterful performance."

Topic Records shines on a spotlight on a specialized sound on Out of Cuba: Latin American Music takes Africa by Storm. "This CD was meant to capitalize in the renewed popularity of Cuban and other Latin American musics. Perhaps the success of the film Buena Vista Social Club and other CDs has brought this music back into prominence," David Cox says.

"The 21 tracks, from a variety of artists -- mostly but not exclusively from Cuba -- are selected to show how Latin American musics influenced what was going on in then-colonial Africa. Originally, these were released on 78-rpm records, giving us an idea of the antiquity of these efforts (1933-58): the sound of the dawn of the recording era."

Corinne Smith celebrated the holidays with a live performance by Kenny Rogers and special guest Rebecca Lynn Howard. "Nothing can put you in the mood for the holidays like a snowy day and an afternoon of seasonal music. This concert came at the perfect time to deliver on both counts," Corinne says.

"Veteran songster Kenny Rogers and his eight-piece band rode into northeastern Massachusetts on the heels of a sizable snowstorm that had just come up the East Coast. With six inches of fresh stuff on top of what we had gotten earlier in the month, the atmosphere outside the auditorium was resigned but nevertheless merry. Drivers took their time with some impromptu plowing and sliding at intersections. Pedestrian concertgoers even laughed as they climbed over snow banks to the sidewalks, grabbing at the arms of friends for surer footing. Even so, a few ticket-holders chose not to gamble on the conditions to attend the event. That decision was indeed their loss."

Lauren Kate provides a new outlet for fans of the teen fantasy romance genre with Fallen. "This novel is very plainly just the set-up for the rest of the series. It starts out kind of slow; it seems to take forever to reach the climax of the novel and explain what's really going on, but if you have patience you will be rewarded ," Charissa Jelliff says.

"It's easy to compare this book to the Twilight saga, and I'm sure many reviewers will do just that, but I think this series will be better planned and thought-out than that series. While each book in Twilight could have been the last and each sequel needed to find a new direction to make it interesting, it is obvious by the end of Fallen that Kate has definite plans for this series and a definite direction in which to take it -- a direction I hope proves to be as interesting and exciting as this promising first novel indicates it will be."

William H. White sails In Pursuit of Glory with his young naval officer Oliver Baldwin. "I don't believe Oliver Baldwin will ever be a great naval hero like the Aubreys and Hornblowers of nautical fiction," Tom Knapp says. "That said, Baldwin's adventures as a young officer in the United States Navy, just a generation past the American Revolution, are both fascinating and fun to read.

"Baldwin, if somewhat lackluster and a little too credulous for his own good, is a steady and able officer who provides a clear perspective on these important events. It is refreshing to see the action through the eyes of someone who's not in command; most nautical authors tend to zero in on the captain as their protagonist. And, while White is occasionally a little repetitive and plodding in his narrative, he manages to maintain the reader's interest through the thrilling exploits of an often overlooked period of American history."

Sheila A. Dane reveals the mysteries of the unknown in Fairy Hunters, Ink.. "Laura and her young friend Ashley have a knack for spotting fairies," Cherise Everhard says. "This book is a collection of their most recent discoveries and concludes with the promise of more to come.

"Each fairy has its own illustration and they are detailed, colorful and whimsical. At just a little over 100 pages, it seems a lengthy kids' book, but the pages and the print are large and it could easily be read in a couple of nights to your child. While I think this book will appeal mostly to children and young teens, I think any adult who can still see a little magic in the world will enjoy it, too."

Jill A. Davis delves into the life of Emily in Ask Again Later. "The pages of Ask Again Later are filled with Emily's issues, quirks and excessive introspection. Author Jill Davis paints her characters with a sympathetic and insightful brush that expertly combines both the serious and the amusing. This makes it easy and intriguing to follow the main character through her personal maze of personalities and questions," Whitney Mallenby says.

"The fact that Davis manages to infuse this first-person narrative with a real sense of perspective without conflicting with any of Emily's own perceptions or conclusions brings a genuine and touching quality to this book that urges readers to engage and invest in Emily's story."

The Twilight Experiment gets a good grade from Mark Allen. "This six-issue miniseries begins with a stimulating plot and a character with whom readers can sympathize. I mean, what if YOU were watching life, including dire events that involved the person you loved most, from afar, unable to intervene? The scenario sets up quite a recipe for emotional loose ends in need of tying," he says.

"With artwork that is not steeped in realism, but contains a wonderful grasp of emotion, as well as ample fluidity that serves the action well, Juan Santacruz adds another well-deserved feather to his artistic cap. This book is as fun to look at as it is to read."

Rhys Evans provides a biography of one of Wales's greatest heroes of the 20th century with Gwynfor Evans: A Portrait of a Patriot. "It's a comprehensive political history of the 35-year leadership of Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party of Wales, by Gwynfor Evans," David Cox explains.

"As a nation that enjoyed no official existence for hundreds of years, Wales -- or Cymru, as it is known in its native language -- now has limited self-government and is rebuilding its identity. While the national language is by no means secure, it is stable. Much of this is, arguably, due to Gwynfor and his tireless work," he says. "Rhys Evans (not a relative of the subject) provides a thorough account of how this happened."

Becky Kyle says Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel falls short of the original feature. "There are two audiences for Chipmunks films. The first are, of course, the children -- in this case, the third generation of kids who are fans of David Seville's creations. The second are the older fans who grew up with the music and the cartoons," she says.

"The kids (and in some cases, grandkids) generally seem to love this movie. There is a lot of action and fun as Alvin, Theodore and Simon (the voices of Justin Long, Jesse McCartney and Matthew Gray Gubler) rollick through high school and eventually learn some important life lessons. The older fans, like my husband and I, may well be disappointed."

Tom Knapp moves into Lakeview Terrace but finds little rest in the neighborhood. "Abel Turner is a very bad neighbor," he says. "It's not because he's rude, although he is. It's not even because he's racist, although he is. Turner is a Los Angeles police officer who, whether on duty or at home, has a very strict view of how things should be done and an overblown sense of his own importance when it comes to making decisions for the people around him.

"He might get away with it when he's bullying his children. But when a mixed-race couple moves in next door, he decides to push around the new neighbors. Let's see how well that works."

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!)

2 January 2010

It is never too late to be what you might have been.
- George Eliot

We wish you and yours a wonderful, healthy, happy and prosperous 2010!

Alan Lomax's name is forever entwined with the preservation of folk musics from around the world. The release of a new box set, Alan Lomax in Haiti, is certainly cause for rejoicing. "In 1936, the Library of Congress sponsored a collecting trip to Haiti, where he recorded more than 50 hours of native Haitian music on aluminum discs. The material seems to have sat on the shelf until the 1970s, when he tried to edit it and discovered that the music was too messed up -- too much surface noise and sound distortion -- to be released. He abandoned the discs and that was the story for another 30 years until the technology was developed that could clean them up," explains Michael Scott Cain.

"Now, digitally cleaned and reworked, the music has been released in a 10-disc set, each volume organized around a theme. And how is it? You'd expect scholars and reference librarians to go crazy over these discs, but the amazing thing is exactly how much fun this music is to listen to. It is not simply a thing for folklorists to pore over in search of footnotes. No, this is music; this is performance as well as social and cultural history."

Chuck McCabe is a reliable Creature of Habit. "McCabe's music is like a visit with an old friend, the ones up for at visit at 3 a.m. with no warning. Unpretentious, familiar and relaxed, but always insightful and entertaining even when times are rough, McCabe's folksy blues -- or is it bluesy folk? -- pulls out a comfortable chair and a pitcher of something strong from the first chords," Sarah Meador relates.

"McCabe's music is politically aware without being politically aligned. His songs are always for ideals, while being solidly against idealogy; about people, the ordinary sort of people that most of us know and are. ... Above all, Creature of Habit is about humans -- loving them, cursing them and above all being one of them. It's a habit none of us seem able to shake, and the wonderful thing about Chuck McCabe is that he can remind us why."

Gary McMahan makes it back to the studio after a lengthy hiatus for Goin' My Way? "Goin' My Way?, McMahan's first studio album since 1992 but the first I've heard, is an engaging collection of songs and recitations by a man who is unmistakably a seasoned professional performer," Jerome Clark says.

"Just as apparently, he has the raw talent behind the showman's gloss (not, it should be added, that anybody would mistake McMahan for a slick Nashville hustler eating up his 15 minutes). Most of the material is Western-themed and suited to the cowboy circuit, where you need authentic range credentials to get a hearing. Native Coloradan and rancher McMahan has a lifetime's worth of those."

Zac Harmon sings blues From the Root. "After a quarter-century working in the recording industry, Zac Harmon decided it was time to pursue his lifelong dream of making his own music," says Jopn Lindermuth.

"Harmon's debut release with NorthernBlues, From the Root, is an eclectic mix combining elements of blues, soul, gospel and even a bit of reggae, and it continues the promise of those earlier accolades. The 14 tracks provide tradition stamped with individuality, a style all his own but defining its roots."

Mike Mason makes his novel debut with The Blue Umbrella. "Mason's experience as a writer allows his characters and settings an appreciable vividness, although at times his phrasing seems a bit beyond his target age group of 9- to 12-year-olds," Whitney Mallenby says.

"However, his newness to this kind of narrative becomes apparent in the structure of this novel. The pacing grows almost meandering at times, and the driving force behind the main plot occasionally seems weakened rather than supported by the focus given to descriptions. Most importantly, however, the main part of this novel is given only to setup rather than to buildup. When the reader starts learning answers along with Zac, they fall logically into place with the previous information."

Broos Campbell doesn't give young Matty Graves much of a break in The War of Knives. "Since reading No Quarter, the first book in Broos Campbell's Matty Graves series, I have had the time to read several novels and nonfiction books of a nautical vein. Some were good, a few were very good, and one or two was a struggle to read to completion," Tom Knapp says.

"But after them all, I was very happy and relieved to pick up The War of the Knives, which not only met my expectations after reading No Quarter, it exceeded them by far."

Jocelynn Drake takes the third step of Dark Days with vampires, werewolves and elves in Dawnbreaker.

"Dawnbreaker is unrelenting in its heart-exploding action and page-turner suspense," Justin Tenley says. "Drake's characters are as cold and distant as ever, but the illuminating light tucked deep inside each of them is an undeniable presence. Best read when the sun has gone down, this dark story will keep readers awake all night, unable to put it aside."

There is, Tom Knapp muses, a certain subset of comics fan that enjoys looking at superheroines in the buff. "There are -- or so I'm told, this is purely rumor -- entire websites devoted to the art of naked versions of Wonder Woman, Supergirl, She-Hulk and the like," he says. "Those fans will love The Cat & the Bat, a Batman title collected from the Batman Confidential monthly series."

A young Batgirl mixes it up with Catwoman in the unsubtly titled collection, The Cat & the Bat. "The story takes a surprising turn when Selina, hoping to shake her pursuer, ducks into the Gotham City Hedonist Society, where everyone is entirely naked. The only way to catch her now is to drop spandex and follow," Tom Knapp says.

"OK, let's state up front that Batman, whom Barbara is trying so hard to emulate, would never ever doff his attire to catch a crook. He'd KO the bouncers, plow through the crowd and nab his man. Barbara, though, takes the less likely route...."

Stephen Hawley Martin crosses science with spirituality in The Science of Life After Death. "If you've followed the research over the past 30 years or so, what you'll discover is that Martin is searching for a scientific basis for what we already know: that consciousness can be projected so that we can perceive remote objects, that there is probably something that survives death, that a whole bunch of evidence exists that suggests the possibility of reincarnation and so on," says Michael Scott Cain.

"Not that it's not a good thing to have scientific validation of these things, but as far as consciousness research goes, we're still stuck at the beginning, showing that something beyond ordinary modes of perception exists. It's time to change the question, to ask what these things mean, instead of what they are."

David Sedaris is quite confident that Me Talk Pretty One Day. "This memoir by David Sedaris is Garrison Keillor crossed with Augusten Burroughs. More drugs than Keillor, but less depravity than Burroughs," Dave Sturm remarks.

"It's non-linear and each essay is a portrayal of an event in the life of Sedaris or a family member. As you read it, it becomes apparent some embellishment is going on. It's a shared wink, I think, between author and reader, and I didn't mind. He's a James Thurber for our age."

Tom Knapp settles back for a wash, cut and style while watching You Don't Mess with the Zohan. "You Don't Mess with the Zohan is an action-spoof with funnyman Adam Sandler as Israeli counterterrorist Zohan Dvir. Despite his superhuman abilities, Zohan tires of the constant fighting, fakes his death and heads to America to pursue his dream -- cutting and styling hair," Tom says.

"The comic potential is vast here, and much of it is tapped in Zohan. Zohan's enthusiasm for the trade is palpable, even if he learned everything he knows from a 1980s styling guide and practiced his art on a pair of shaggy dogs. Unfortunately, Zohan has a schtick -- he likes to have sex with elderly women -- and the movie beats that schtick into the ground."

Dave Sturm, meanwhile, spends his movie-watching time In Dreams. "In Dreams is a thriller made by a master. This is a movie to be watched more than listened to. Let the visuals have their way with you and you are going to have an exciting, nail-biting two hours capped with a perfect-fit ending," he says.

"If you look for meaning, logical connections and perfect continuity, don't bother. It's not going to work for you. It's not that kind of movie. This is not Silence of the Lambs or Se7en. It's more like Nicholas Roeg's twisted little masterpiece, Don't Look Now. In fact, I recommend that movie to anyone (the few, the proud, the brave) who can see what a terrific movie In Dreams is."

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!)

26 December 2009

It's kind of a busy week in this neck of the woods, so we're taking the week off. Happy holidays to everyone who celebrates anything at this time of year, and we hope you will all have an amazing 2010!! See you next week!

19 December 2009

I am a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.
- J.D. Salinger

Don't forget to visit our collection of holiday reviews as you look for the right music to play, movie to watch or book to read for this special season!

Dan Milner serves up an order of Irish Pirate Ballads & Other Songs of the Sea. "On his latest CD, a handsomely produced sequel to 1997's Irish Ballads & Songs of the Sea, he spins yarns of pirates, smugglers and homesick sailors with a jaunty voice that falls somewhere between those of Gordon Lightfoot and Willie Nelson. The supporting cast features Irish traditional luminaries such as singer Susan McKeown, flutist Joanie Madden of Cherish the Ladies, banjo virtuoso and folklorist Mick Moloney, champion fiddler Brian Conway and Clancy family member Robbie O'Connell," Gwen Orel says.

"Milner's emphatic delivery evokes an abiding love of that harsh mistress, the sea."

David Holt and Josh Goforth are Cutting Loose with their music. "By their very nature, live albums, and particularly those with extended speaking parts on them, tend to have a you-shoulda-been-there quality. Unlike other recordings, they don't always repay repeated listening. Cutting Loose is possibly no exception, except that it is so good-natured that, yes, I've played it a few times now, on each occasion with undiminished pleasure," Jerome Clark says.

"It's good stuff all around. As I can testify from experience, listening to it will make you feel better."

Nanci Griffith is in a Lone Star State of Mind with this new reissue of her fifth CD. "A native of Austin, Griffith's album is more than just a pastiche of songs about the South; it's a cycle of love songs to strength and perseverance of the modern Everyman -- or Everywoman, as the case may be. The songs are peopled by characters as diverse and varied as the population of the Great State of Texas," Belinda Christ says.

"It's the little album that could, an album so determined to deliver that it simply can't fail. Nanci Griffith delivers a first-class listening experience."

Sean Costello gets his due in Sean's Blues: A Memorial Retrospective. "Costello (1979-2008) was not just another hot-shot young, white blues-rock guitarist. There are plenty of those, and they are largely indistinguishable. Costello, however, lived and performed in another category altogether. Both a traditionalist and an innovator, he had chops, soul and something -- much -- to say," Jerome Clark says.

"Though able to stretch out when so inclined or when necessary to fire up an audience, he was mostly too grounded to waste notes and too disciplined to fatten them when they needed no more feeding. In Costello's guitar art, every note counts. And he could sing, too."

George Kahumoku Jr. and Bob Brozman take you to Hawaii with Kani Wai: Sound of Water. "The opening strains bring it all back, the first time I heard traditional Hawaiian music: the sliding warmth of Bob Brozman's Weissenborn slide guitar, the enveloping 12-string slack key and calm vocals of George Kahumoku Jr.," says Jamie O'Brien.

"Every track is performed with not just tightness and understanding, but also warmth and inventiveness. Leads are shared and never crowded out as they give each other space to develop themes and ideas. They respond so well to one another."

John Blase gets whole-heartedly into the spirit of the season with Touching Wonder: Recapturing the Awe of Christmas.

"Touching Wonder: Recapturing the Awe of Christmas has lofty ambitions. John Blase seeks to bring attention to the events leading up to the birth of Jesus in terms both realistic and inspiring. The Nativity story has often been presented as a sanitized, colorful and wondrous fantasy with iconic figures, ignoring the coarse, difficult and exhausting reality that otherwise everyday people experienced. Well, Blase certainly focuses on the latter, as he delves into the more-than-mundane possibility that Zachariah got up several times a night to relieve himself as well as a description of the blood-stained hay around Mary after giving birth," C. Nathan Coyle remarks.

"Blase's prose style offers a gritty realism to the ancient verses, providing a behind-the-scenes look at what may have been running through the minds of Biblical figures such as Zachariah, Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary. This aspect of the book's format is very well done. Instead of exploring the words of distant (in time and location), historical figures, Blase presents these people in a relatable first-person perspective. The reader is given a peek into the everyday life of 2,000 years ago, the joy and frustrations of interacting with a divine presence."

Carole McDonnell's Wind Follower gets a very different analysis from each of two reviewers. "I must be getting old. I find I have little patience with fantasy with complex world-building that requires one to constantly flip back to a glossary to find out who's who and what's what. Carole McDonnell's lushly written novel reflects meticulous work to construct her medieval African world, but she has packed so much into the novel that it threatens to drown the story," says Donna Scanlon.

Becky Kyle, on the other hand, says Wind Follower "is a breath of fresh air in the romantic fantasy genre. While a freshman effort for the author, Carole McDonnell has a deft grip of social concepts and worldbuilding and a gift for lyrical prose. McDonnell's world is based on a multiracial culture, including ancient African, Asian and Caucasian tribes with multiple religious beliefs." Check out this double review for both sides of the story!

Frederick Marryat, an originator of the nautical fiction genre, gave the world Mr. Midshipman Easy in 1836. "Touted as being among the first of its genre, Easy and other novels by Marryat were a source of inspiration for the likes of C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian, whose fictional naval heroes are now legendary," Tom Knapp says.

"Even so, Easy does not entirely stand the test of time. Nearly two centuries since its first printing, this adventure novel is in many ways a difficult slog for the modern reader."

Cassandra Clare concludes The Mortal Instruments with City of Glass. "In City of Glass, Cassandra Clare once again blends creatures from mythology and religion to create a world that is familiar without being stale. By taking a step back from the softer, sweeter creatures currently embraced in much of urban fantasy, Clare is able to create a world with a slightly harder, sharper edge," Belinda Christ says.

"My one complaint is that the ending seems a little too pat, a little too neat. I like stories that have a stronger sense of karmic balance."

Tom Knapp thought the graphic novel Nuns with Guns had a promising title. "When you read this slim volume from Viper Comics, however, it doesn't take long to realize that the four nuns featured in this book don't use guns," he says.

"Choice of weapons aside, how is this book? Kind of lame, actually. You've got your gymnastic nun, your tech-savvy nun, your super-strong-but-stupid nun and, of course, your leader nun. You have a mysterious, Charlie-like character who calls them on their crucifix radios and gives them assignments in a darkened confessional. And they get to fight a demon, sea monsters and even the Anti-Christ, all without breaking a sweat."

Paul Raffaele digs into his subject for Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man's Darkest Ritual. "Looking for an open-minded and thought-provoking consideration of cannibalism across cultures? Put Among the Cannibals down at once. Better yet, don't pick it up in the first place," Jennifer Mo warns.

"Author Paul Raffaele is not an anthropologist. Nor is he a philosopher. Instead, he is a self-described adventurer who tramples into foreign lands, ogles topless native women, makes cheeky comments at sages, chants Latin liturgy to convince natives he has magic powers and comes right out and says it on page 123: 'Eating human flesh, unless you have no prospect of other food and are starving to death, is an evil act.' ... It's almost eerie how well Raffaele channels a typical white, male, 19th-century traveler in his condescension, cultural insensitivity and intolerance. By the end of the first chapter, you may find yourself wishing one of the Korowai cannibals in the book -- or any cannibal -- would just eat him. No such luck."

Tom Knapp thinks the director was Lost in Space when he made this turkey. "Usually, I can find something positive to say about a movie. With Lost in Space, the 1998 update to the campy 1960s science-fiction TV series, there's just nothing good to say," Tom says.

"The plot is ridiculous -- and doesn't even know enough to poke fun at itself, like the series did. The dialogue is wooden. The special effects aren't all that special. The score is overwrought."

John Bird saw a little of himself in Ukulele. "This is a cute little film fantasy, I thought when I watched Tim Beers' and Wade White's 16-minute epic," he says.

"Who could imagine someone becoming so obsessed with a ukulele that it causes marital problems. I mean, I play the ukulele myself, but it's no big deal. I could give it up any time," John adds. "But then I showed it to my 19-year-old son, and he collapsed in a fit of laughter. 'It's funny because it's true,' he said."

Dave Sturm takes a fond look back at Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. "You have to suspend an elephant-sized amount of disbelief, but Dark Passage remains a compelling film noir because of the chemistry between Betty Perske -- oops, I mean Lauren Bacall -- and Bogie," he says.

"Also, all the character actors give startlingly vivid performances. The fascinating location shots of San Francisco in the 1940s make the scenery practically a character in the movie."

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 December 2009

Though courtship turns frogs into princes, marriage turns them quietly back.
- Marge Piercy

Oh baby, it's cold out there!

First up this week is a triumvirate of seasonal offerings reviewed by Becky Kyle.

Tori Amos makes a grand entrance into the holiday season with Midwinter Graces. "Every year, I have to find a few Christmas CDs to add to my collection. Sadly, many artists have discovered the holiday venue as a way to produce revenue without actually adding anything more than cover songs to the body of holiday music already available. When I'm buying, I don't want to hear the traditionals redone. That's been done -- and probably better long ago," says Becky.

"I was more than excited to see Tori Amos offered a holiday CD this year because I knew she'd go off the beaten path. I was not disappointed at all. This is not your usual holiday CD. Yes, we do have 'Silent Night' and 'Coventry Carol,' but the balance of the 14 songs are new or songs you don't often hear."

Putumayo serves up A Family Christmas, much to Becky's delight. "If I had to name a favorite record label, it would have to be Putumayo because they have brought me music from all over the world and exposed me to some of my new favorite artists, from African to Celtic They've also brought out a new Christmas CD almost every year, and it's always something fun and unexpected. The 11 tracks on this year's offering are no different," she says.

"You literally don't know what's going to happen next with this recording and that's probably the best thing about it. While the music's all been played before, you're not going to hear it done like this any time soon."

Sting joins the holiday crew with his latest release, If on a Winter's Night. "Please note while this CD is frequently listed among 'Christmas' music, the offerings are not totally holiday fare. In this case, the title is very indicative of the material within. These songs are musings for a cold winter's night. This also is a CD you can use to audition stereo equipment, as the recording is one of the best I have heard in a long time," Becky says.

"While Sting fans are going to love this CD, I think it's also appropriate for people who enjoy the 17th-century style music and audiophile level recording. There's not a bad song in the mix."

If that's not enough, we have a page devoted to nothin' but this jolly season for your perusal right here. Take a look, find something to read, watch or spin on your stereo!

And now, a few more offerings that are not tied to the time of year:

Carley Wolf is prepared to Set Sail with this "amiably eccentric" recording. "Judging from her photos, Wolf cannot have been born when the first generation of hippies roamed the Earth. Still, she must have something of the experience in her genes," Jerome Clark says.

"In any event, what matters for our purposes is that Set Sail is well above the usual singer-songwriter fare. Wolf has an impressively inventive musical imagination, in which she integrates multiple genres (jazz, gypsy rhythms, folk, pop) into a distinctively personal style. Her voice -- both literal and metaphorical -- is rich, supple and hard to resist whether it is waxing philosophical, gloomy, erotic or playful."

Buddy and Julie Miller's music is Written in Chalk. "If you are only a casual fan of the country or Americana genres, you might not have heard of Buddy and Julie Miller, but there is no doubt that the performers in your music library have, and there is a fair probability that Buddy or Julie appear in the liner notes of a number of your favorite albums," Edward Whitelock says.

"The speed at which this album vanished from the charts is absolutely perplexing. This is the best country/Americana release of the year, hands down: authentic music made by authentic people. This is old-time music that sounds like it was made the old-time way, in a living room, with a group of friends gathered around the farmhouse piano while assorted instrumentalists line the walls around the singers. And what a stellar array of "old friends" have stopped by for this particular sing-along: Robert Plant, Patty Griffin, Larry Campbell and Emmylou Harris, among many others!"

Josh Boyd & the V.I.P Band doesn't raise any eyebrows with this self-titled blues album. "One aspect of today's technology that has turned out to have some negative effects is the fact that it is so widespread, anyone willing to invest the money can churn out a professional-sounding CD. What we need to remember is that, in some cases, professional sounding is not professional," says Michael Scott Cain.

"Josh Boyd's CD turns out to be a routine album, featuring a lot of guitar and rough vocals on songs that are neither memorable or startlingly original. It all has a slightly familiar feel; you've heard it all before."

Tamara Summers urges teenage girls to Never Bite a Boy on the First Date. "While Tamara Summers' Never Bite a Boy on the First Date isn't exactly a carbon copy of Stephenie Meyer's best-selling books, many similarities exist. The complexities of dating between members of the living and undead, identity crises and high school drama are but a few of the many resemblances. However, it is the way that this book differs from those of the Twilight series that makes it noticeable," says Justin Tenley.

"Although the plot revolves around the murder of a high school student, Never Bite a Boy on the First Date was written by a whimsical, light-hearted hand. Steering very clear from dark, serious conventions, the story is full of humor ... and young romance."

C.S. Forester is Flying Colours as he sails into the eighth book of the Horatio Hornblower saga. "For all that Horatio Hornblower is one of the great literary naval captains of the age, he spends very little time at sea in Flying Colours," Tom Knapp reports. "Here he pays the price for his highly successful actions against the French; forced to strike his colors against overwhelming odds at the end of Ship of the Line, he now languishes with his crew in a French prison awaiting trial for alleged war crimes against Napoleon.

"It speaks well for Hornblower (and, even more so, Forester) that this ship's captain performs so well as a protagonist even when deprived of his natural place at sea. While Hornblower's insufferable self-loathing, guilt and recriminations do at times grow tiresome, his endlessly clever mind and action-packed successes assures he will remain a beloved character for generations to come."

Haggai Carmon reveals The Chameleon Conspiracy in the third Dan Gordon thriller. "The introduction in the book compares Dan Gordon to James Bond. That link is tenuous in my mind," Wil Owen says.

"Yes, both characters are intelligence agents. However, Bond is always in the middle of an action scene, which makes you think he has more lives than a cat. Gordon, on the other hand, is a little more portly and spends most of his action scenes either running away or getting his butt kicked. This isn't meant to be comedic. Dan is simply more of a thinker, not a fighter. Dan's skill is in out-witting his opponent, not over-powering them with physical prowess."

Ross Macdonald is not your average Sleeping Beauty. "This is Ross MacDonald at his prime," Dave Sturm observes.

"This novel requires and rewards close reading. It is not slam-bang hard-boiled stuff. It intricately picks apart the history of a family that has long been in denial about the rotten things done in the past," he adds. "Red herrings? A ton of them. Don't even try to guess the ending, which only appears on the final page. But it takes your breath away."

Mark Allen takes a look back at a once cutting-edge title. "As in any entertainment medium, experimentation within the field of comics is important. And, while a handful of computer-generated comics were produced in the 1980s and '90s, for my money, DC's graphic novel titled The Dome: Ground Zero was one of the most worthwhile," he says.

"A combination of painted art and computer-generated graphics, much of Angus McKie's work is quite striking, even beautiful. However, as computer technology improves on pretty much an annual basis these days, the 1998 graphics will likely seem stiff, even antiquated to some. Still, the art never distracts from the story. And who knows? It may even be a draw for older readers who were more into video games during the '90s."

Becky Kyle takes a look at the new Disney take on A Christmas Carol. "A Christmas Carol is for the most part faithful to the Dickensian classic. Director Robert Zemeckis has, of course, added some heart-breaking and fearsome twists to the three manifestations of Christmasses Past, Present and Yet to Come," she says.

"He's also given Scrooge almost exactly the face I envisioned when I first read the story many years ago. He's a hawk-nosed, hard-eyed, bitter pill of an old man who looks like he's stewed in his own bitter pudding for many years."

Tom Knapp, less in the holiday spirit, goes creeping around in the basement looking for zombies in Resident Evil. "Video games have inspired a raft of movies over the past decade or two. Most of them aren't much good, either because they fail to follow the parameters established by the game or because they fail to rise above the source material," he says.

"Resident Evil falls among the latter; it's a lot like your standard shoot-'em-up zombie video game, in that you have people wandering through improbable locations splattering zombies with heavy firepower, but apart from cardboard characters and a flimsy plot, it offers little you couldn't find in a game."

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 December 2009

Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain.
- Jane Wagner

We are sad to announce the death of Liam Clancy, who at age 74 was the last of Ireland's beloved Clancy Brothers. We hope brothers Tom and Patrick, as well as longtime partner Tommy Makem, are waiting to greet him, and the afterlife will resound with their songs.

Rambles.NET editor Tom Knapp fondly recalls an opportunity he had to interview Liam along with his nephew, Robbie O'Connell, in 1995. You can read the results of that chat here.

On the lighter side of celebrity news ... what kind of man pays his wife ($60 million, no less) to stay married to him? Damn, we suspect he could find someone at a much better rate on any street corner in New York City.

Enter the Haggis catches our reviewer's ear with Gutter Anthems. "Gutter Anthems is my kind of Celtic music, a blend of contemporary sounds with bagpipes and the traditional themes interwoven," Becky Kyle asserts.

"Usually, there's one song I'll skip on a CD, but in this case, I can honestly say all 15 songs are well worth listening to. I've had the CD in my computer for a week now, and I will probably only replace it with Christmas music."

Fiona J. Mackenzie packs A Good Suit of Clothes for sharing her Gaelic songs. "Mackenzie has a beautiful voice ideally suited to the songs on offer here," says Nicky Rossiter.

"This is an excellent album of top-class if little-known songs sung by a fantastic singer with sensitive and never overpowering backing."

Anne Price serves up some nostalgia with Very Early Anne. "Price discovered some tapes of her performances at folk gatherings at Hunter College in 1965 and '66, when she was a student there. Obviously, they constitute a piece of her development as an artist, but for us, the listening audience, they constitute a trip back in time, back to every night you ever spent in a coffee house, bar or house concert, listening to an earnest, not ready for prime time, guitar-playing soprano run through the standard folk repertoire," says Michael Scott Cain.

"It was a time when singers didn't have to be singer-songwriters, when they built their sets out of traditional tunes, a touch of bluegrass and songs composed by the folk giants of the day."

The New Budapest Orpheum Society has front-row seats to share for the Jewish Cabaret in Exile. "The title of this CD refers to the economically based movement of Jews from the country to cities such as Vienna, Budapest and Berlin in the late 19th century," Dave Howell explains.

"The CD comes with an excellent 62-page booklet, which explains the history of this music. It is a unique, sounding like vaudeville played by classically trained musicians, sung in German and Yiddish, with the minor keys of Jewish music sneaking in here and there. It's a fascinating presentation."

Bearfoot is throwing open the Doors & Windows. "Originally intended to be a bluegrass band, Bearfoot's young founders changed direction when they couldn't find a banjo player in Alaska. So, while remaining acoustic, banjoless and drumless (at least in live performance; banjo and drums are heard from time to time on Doors & Windows), the group became something else not immediately classifiable, at least in the context it has chosen -- for now -- to operate," Jerome Clark says.

"Mostly original songs, the better part of Bearfoot is the Joni Mitchell/singer-songwriter sort of material, melodic, lyrically ambitious and well sung with engagingly ethereal harmonies. The less interesting part, too close to half of the album, suggests directions that may lead the band to Nashville to join the legions of forgettable, mainstream and ephemeral."

Joe Bonomo gets down to the nitty gritty in Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band. "It is rare to hear a rock band whose taste in music seems to come out of your own head, like they were reading your thoughts. To me, the Fleshtones are that band," Dave Sturm remarks.

"It not only puzzles me, it angers me that such great talent has not been met with the reward it deserves. It is absolutely infernal that it has taken the French, who adore them, to keep their fortunes afloat."

Cassandra Clare unearths a City of Ashes in the second volume of The Mortal Instruments. "The blend of magic and real-world New York makes this series, in some ways, the very definition of urban fantasy. Add to it the inclusion of vampires and werewolves, a sprinkling of fairies and a flamboyantly gay wizard, and it starts to seem like every stereotype on the fantasy shelf. And yet, oddly enough, it works. The vampires are different than most of the modern vampires: they're scary and not the least little bit sexy or sparkly. The werewolves have a social structure that is different from most in modern fiction, with a harder edge than one might expect in YA fiction. And you don't even want to tangle with the fairies, 'cause they ain't Tinkerbell," Belinda Christ says.

"In other words, what Clare has done is go back to older myths for her source material. Everything has a harder, darker edge than some of the YA books coming out today. In some ways, it is like comparing the Disney versions of fairy tales to the Grimm tales. The older versions are earthier, darker and, ultimately, more frightening."

William H. White takes on the First Barbary War, a little-known period of American naval history, with The Greater the Honor, a novel that sets fictional midshipman Oliver Baldwin in the heart of the action. "Baldwin isn't the hero here; rather, White sets him among numerous real, larger-than-life naval figures, such as Commodore Edward Preble, who commanded the blockade of Tripoli in 1803 from the deck of the mighty USS Constitution, plus Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge, Isaac Hull, James Lawrence and more. Through Baldwin's eyes, we see the burning of the capture frigate, Philadelphia, as well as the bombardment of the walled city and attacks on various vessels in the Tripoli fleet," Tom Knapp says.

"There are some weaknesses, however, that might put off some readers."

Jessica Day George unveils the Princess of the Midnight Ball. "With one exception, all of the recent retellings of 'The Twelve Dancing Princesses' have been spectacularly mediocre. There's Dia Calhoun's overtly psychological The Phoenix Dance, Suzanne Weyn's overwrought The Night Dance and Juliet Marillier's forgettable Wildwood Dancing," says Jennifer Mo.

"Princess of the Midnight Ball blows them all out of the water. Seamless storytelling meets understated magic, sure-footed prose and surreptitious knitting in this satisfying retelling."

The second volume of The Sword finds former paraplegic Dara Brighton seeking revenge against the man/god who murdered her sister. The journey takes her and two friends to the Bahamas ... and she even gets to fight pirates along the way," Tom Knapp says.

"Much of Water is taken up with Dara's journey and search for Zakros. The rest is a fierce and thrilling duel of powers and will -- and readers will learn just what a creative mind can do with water."

David Hadju examines a four-color controversy in The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare & How It Changed America. "It is one of the book's greatest ironies that those in charge of images and storytelling in a highly commercial venue, with a vast reservoir of creative talent at its disposal, were unable to grasp how quickly public sentiment had turned against them. They lost control of the rhetoric early on and never got it back. This was due largely to the fact that they didn't treat the growing threat seriously enough until it was very late in the game," says comics reviewer Mary Harvey.

"For a while, comic-book publishers tried to walk the line by forming the CMAA, their own version of an in-house censoring panel, but the reforms that were demanded literally left nothing to the imagination. The result was that hundreds of talented artists and writers were, by the end of 1955, working as security guards, post office clerks and secretaries. But it certainly wasn't the end."

Dave Sturm's first viewing of Waltz with Bashir became an opportunity for discussion. "I am somewhat film-savvy and was well aware of what it was about and drove nearly an hour to see it," he recalled. "There were only three people in the audience, myself included. The other two were an elderly married couple. After it ended, the couple immediately came up to me. They were very disturbed and wanted to talk to someone, anyone, about what they had just seen.

"Let there be no doubt -- this is film art of the highest order, and a landmark in film history."

Tom Knapp offers up a big ol' hiss for Anaconda. "Let me say this about Anaconda: an opening scene with Jennifer Lopez in a sheer nightgown is just about the best special effect in the film," he says.

"Otherwise, the effects are pretty terrible. When, for instance, the giant snake attacks the hungry panther, you will believe that a computer-animated serpent can kill a stuffed cat. And when that giant snake attacks members of the cast, you will believe the actors were between jobs and really just needed an income."

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!)