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Sunday, the 13th of February, 2006
'I came to the realization many years ago that I like big, strong, even aggressive tastes: cheddars so sharp they make your eyes water, curries in general, though preferably fairly hot, garlic-heavy Middle-Eastern mezes, chilli-saturated Mexican dishes, hugely fruity Aussie wines, and thumpingly, almost aggressively flavoured whiskies.' -- Iain Banks in Raw Spirits
Come in! I'm Jack Merry, not so much your host tonight, but I can most likely answer any questions that you might have. Put your wet cloak and boots over by the roaring fire so they can dry out properly. There's lots of libations ranging from newly tapped casks of Midwinter Ale and Ryhope Wood Hard Cider to a rapidly being depleted case of Midnight Wine, and nibblies from crusty bread with a garlic-heavy baba ganoush, to lots of Iranian caviar. Right now, do try the heather smoked salmon from Scotland -- quite tasty!
We're celebrating another year of Green Man by having our editorial staff pick their personal choices for the very best books, films and DVDs, live performances, and recorded music reviewed here in the last year. I really can't say how many reviews we did last year, but April Gutierrez, our Book Editor, figures we reviewed hundreds of books, and I seem to remember Kim Bates, our Music Editor, saying we reviewed well over five hundred music recordings! So picking the very best of last year meant that the Editor-in-Chief, Cat Eldridge, gave them the issue off from editing new reviews so they could gather in the Robert Graves Reading Room for serious conversation about what was worthy of being chosen. After much thoughtful consideration and more than a few libations, here are their choices.
2005 went by in a blur of new job, new house and lots of adjustments. But amidst the chaos several little musical gems percolated to the top of my consciousness -- albums that stood out from the crowd that passes across my desk and through my CD player -- I listen to at least part of every CD we review, and many that we don't, and it takes something special to make it onto this list. Having said that, I seem to have turned all traditional this year for some reason -- or at least nostalgic, as we shall see. Several of my favorite artists put out material that didn't grab me, and I proved immune to the charms of several likely new artists.
Kate Rusby's The Girl Who Couldn't Fly is also superb, as expected. She has impeccable taste, and surrounds herself with stellar talent, all the better to showcase her incredible vocals. She manages to be tender, with a light soprano that is never shrill. Both the traditional and original songs on this album are great, particularly her duet with Roddy Woomble from Idlewild, on "No Names."
By far the best CD to renovate by was the Ultimate Pogues Collection, loaded with classic material, along with a live companion CD that was great fun -- and that got played a great deal more than the studio recordings. Nostalgia ruled over the summer. I should have actually torn myself away from it long enough to review it, but what can I say -- eventually it got done, and I've moved on.
The last charmer I'd like to mention is a collaboration by some familiar artists: Sharon Shannon-Frankie Gavin-Michael McGoldrick-Jim Murray's Tunes. It's difficult to go wrong with this crowd, and Tunes is loaded with some great instrumental music artfully arranged and played with both technical excellence and heartfelt emotion. I've always admired Shannon in particular, having encountered her way back when she was a Waterboy, and this album shows that she's not only still got it, but also continues to know how to make some fine friends. Watch for a review soon.
Now that 2006 has rolled around, I'm very impressed by Lunasa's forthcoming release, Sé (pronounced Shay -- Gaelic for Six) and Winifred Horan's collaboration with Mick Mcauley, Serenade, to name a few of the Irish persuasion, and I've got a pile of CDs sitting here on my desk, so who knows? Will they still be on the top of the pile when we pick our favorites from 2006? Who knows? But I'm sure it will be great fun finding out -- and there's a big pile of CDs sitting right here on the desk to get me started!
This has been a great year for movies, with loads of films vying for attention. In fact, there are so many great flicks out there that I haven't gotten around to seeing all of the ones I'm interested in. But that's okay, because even if I saw every single movie that came out this past year (not that I'd like to; Bewitched and A Sound of Thunder were punishment enough), my best picture choice would still be the same. Brokeback Mountain is that good. I caught a screening of this film about two months ago, and I'm still haunted by it. Yes, the story is a different take on love and hardship than what we're used to from Hollywood, but that's not the reason it's number one in my book. Every piece of this film fits together seamlessly, from the drop-dead gorgeous cinematography to costuming and set design. I'll be rooting for Heath Ledger come Oscar time; his portrayal of Ennis Del Mar has a aching desperation that is almost too painful to watch. I dare anyone to remain unaffected by his scene in the alley, right after Ennis and Jack part ways for the first time. I really, truly hate the term 'instant classic', but this film definitely deserves all the recognition it's getting, and more.
Two other films are personal favorites from 2005, so I'll give them a quick tip of the hat. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was a slam-bang end to George Lucas‚ prequel trilogy. Saying that it's the best film of the three isn't really saying much, so I'll say that it met the challenge of showing how Anakin becomes Darth nicely. Yes, it's not the original trilogy. But it's the piece we'd all been waiting for, and this little piece of 'space opera' brings the story to a fitting end. And though it may not meet with popular opinion, I really enjoyed The Island. It's a thinking man's popcorn flick, one that you can sit down and enjoy as is, or use as a springboard for a lively ethics and morality debate at the pub after the movie.
I could go absolutely crazy about books here, but I'll keep it to a top three. I can't say enough good things about Essential SF: A Concise Guide. I turn to it constantly for information and suggestions for genre reading. It's one of the few books on my bookshelf that friends covet. The longer I have it, the more I appreciate this brief but informative SF guide. Eldest: Inheritance, Book Two is starting to look like the series Robert Jordan wishes he could write. Eragon and his friends may be all over the map, but the storyline is never bloated or off-course. And a Year's Best wouldn't be complete without a mention of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Harry's got his work cut out for him by the end of this book, and with only one more story in this series to go, J.K. Rowling pulls out all the stops. She does something that I thought would be absolutely impossible; she left me with no idea what Harry will do next. But I'm dying to find out.
Okay, I'll admit it. I know very little about music, and what I do know falls outside of the categories GMR knows and loves. Kanye West, The White Stripes and Coldplay all released albums this year that are firmly planted in my mp3 player, but fat lot of good they do me here. But I do have a sentimental favorite from the few music reviews I turned in last year; Al Stewart's a beach full of shells is always in my car, ready for action. Why? Because his music has a timeless quality to it, and his style is so all-encompassing that it fits with any mood you may be in. Plus, the sound is one that just about anyone could sit and listen to, making it a great family dinner party choice. Which is something I can't say for Kanye West.
It's not that I don't get around much anymore, it's that I'm too lazy to keep up with the music scene around here. Normally, Scythian would be tops on my list, but since I didn't get to see them perform this year, they're out of the running. Probably just as well, because one performance last year stands out in my memory, leaving no room for other contenders. Matisyahu is a Hasidic Jew who happens to put out some of the best reggae (yeah, you heard me correctly) this side of Jamaica. At first, you may think that this marriage ain't gonna work, but in fact reggae, with its roots firmly planted in Rastafarianism, has a built-in spirituality that gives this musical style not only a higher purpose, but a sense of urgency. Matisyahu just gives the spirituality a different spin, and his sold-out December 25, 2005 show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. showed that he can keep pace with the best of them. His spirituality is evident, his hooks are infectious, and he had everyone drawn in from the moment he took the stage. Though the 9:30 Club isn't what I'd call an intimate setting, his performance felt like a gathering of friends rather than a mob scene. Plus, the man can beatbox like nobody's business. If you ever have a chance to see him live, don't hesitate.
It's always somewhat surprising to me just how much reading I do in a given year. and it's even more surprising how much of that reading is outstanding! As always, I had trouble limiting my choices for the best reads of last year. My short list is culled from a much longer list which included tasty items that we didn't review as they are not available for review, such as the annual Charles de Lint winter holiday chapbook ('A World in a Box' which will, like the other chapbooks since Triskell Tales' release, be collected together in Triskell Tales 2), the third volume of Stross' Clan Corporate series, a forthcoming novel in Kage Baker's The Company series, and more than a few things which I've forgotten right now.
Fiction is what I read for pleasure and I really love long series, so new novels in Neal Asher's Polity series, Brass Man, and Kage Baker's The Company series, The Children of The Company, were welcome reads. Time Rangers which, like the Baker novel, started life as a series of tales that became a truly great time travel novel. Patricia McKillip's first collection ever, Harrowing the Dragon. was simply the best single-author fantasy collection I've ever read! And, as always, The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror No. Eighteen impressed me to no end. I even liked the switch from brightly colored dust Jackets -- all done by Tom Canty -- to a more somber brown-toned one by the same illustrator. A class job as it always has been.
The highlight of 2005 was the release by Subterranean Press of Charles de Lint's Moonheart, 20th Anniversary Edition which, as I noted in my review, is 'the finest designed novel I've ever had the pleasure to hold and admire. (Mine, all mine! Errr, never mind. Gollum will go away if you ignore him.) Please understand I do not say this without a great deal of consideration as to why I hold this belief. First is the text itself, which is arguably the finest urban fantasy ever written, and possibly the first true urban fantasy novel ever written. Moonheart is that rare creature -- a novel which has a terrific plot, well-crafted characters that you want to believe in as real flesh and blood folk, and a setting that is so interesting that you, the reader, as I do every time I read it, want to visit. Now, the urban setting of Ottawa where Tamson House is situated is, I admit, less interesting than Newford, where much of his later fiction is set, but Tamson House, the immense structure that straddles multiple realities, makes up for that.'
My pick for the Very Best Novel of 2005 that I read is Tim Pratt's The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl which I said in my review 'is easily the most impressive debut novel I've read in a very long time! It is also one of the best novels I've ever read, period . . . Now Tim, get out there and write your next novel -- I want to see what amazing piece of fiction you do next!'
This was a banner year for reference works reviewed by Green Man with a myriad number of them getting a look-see by our staff. Those which got added to my office collection of essential reference works included the finally updated The Anatomy of Wonder by Neil Barron, and two by Brian Stableford The Historical Dictionary of Fantasy and The Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction, both of which are great 'popcorn' works and serious reference tomes. Speaking of great 'popcorn' works, it's hard to beat the sheer fun of Joe Nazzard's The Creatures of Farscape: Inside Jim Henson's Creature Shop, a lovely look at the various strange inhabitants of the science-fiction series and how they were designed and crafted. Oh, and let's not forget Maria Tatar's The Annotated Brothers Grimm which I think is as useful in its own way as Jack Zipes' seminal translation of those tales.
Video is our preferred manner for seeing films and series these days so all of my picks are out on DVD now for your viewing pleasure.
Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars was billed as season five of Farscape, the best sf series ever bar none, but it was really just a glorious wrap-up of the final (fourth) season. The Batman was the newest entrant in the animated Batman canon. Despite carping from many fans, I found it well-worth seeing. (And I found The Joker action figure from the series at Toys 'R' Us!) We watched yet another season of the English mystery series The Midsomer Murders, and saw all of The Inspector Alleyn mystery series as well. The delightfully cast and designed House of Eliott rounded out our series watching for the year.
I saw a number of concerts this year, of which the best was Cantrip, a Scottish group, at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine early in the Fall. With the exception of two pieces by Richard Thompson and mandolin player Cameron Robson, the band played mostly tunes from Nordic and Celtic traditions. The second great concert was also all Celtic and Nordic traditions as the musicians were Shetland Islander Aly Bain & Swede Ale Moller at the Center for Cultural Exchange, a promoter that has now apparently shut down -- more's the pity as it was often a magical place to see and hear the great performers they booked. Also experienced at CCE was Les Yeux Noirs. Barbara Truex said of that performance that '[t]here is nothing better to get the blood flowing than a hot evening of Gypsy music, especially on a cold, damp New England night' and I must agree!
I'll have to make a slight confession here . . . I can't actually list the book I think was the best release of 2005, Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, because, er, well, I've been too lazy to actually review it here yet. Hopefully I will rectify this before the quarter is out!
Topping the list of titles I can mention are two Gaiman works, the long illustrated poem, Melinda, and his latest novel, Anansi Boys. Melinda is a simply gorgeous work, from its taut, sparing language to Dagmara Matuzak's amazing artwork to the actual physical volume itself. When I interviewed Gaiman at the National Book Festival in September, he confessed that there is indeed more to Melinda's story. I remain hopeful he will share it before too much time passes. Anansi Boys is a playful romp through modern-day London . . . and the world of Anansi the Spider. Gaiman's in full stride here, portraying Fat Charlie and Spider with equal parts wit and empathy.
It's almost unfair of me to include the next novel, Jim Butcher's Dead Beat, as I originally read it back in 2004, when it was still in the editing stages. But I absolutely adore the Dresden Files series, and Dead Beat is a terrific addition!
I'm known as a fan of graphic novels, and manga in particular, so it should come as no surprise to find Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics on my list. This labor of love is well-researched and engagingly written. And on the non-manga front, the latest installment of the Fables graphic novel series, The Mean Seasons, left me hungering for volume six, due out this year.
While I didn't make it out to many movies this year (Netflix and its ever-expanding vaults of obscure older and foreign films is my friend indeed), several reviewed here at GMR resonated strongly with me. Howl's Moving Castle, while not up to par with its predecessor, Spirited Away, was still leaps and bounds better than anything animated domestically (and makes me eager to see what Studio Ghibli will do with its Earthsea license), with stunning animation and a strong narrative (even if it bears little resemblance to its source, I'm told).
Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's first foray into film, Mirrormask, was delightful, a trippy mix of Gaiman's narrative and McKean's macabre imagination wrought in computer graphics. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire can proudly lay claim to being the only movie I saw twice in the theatres. First-time Potter director Mike Nichols wisely jettisoned all that was superfluous in Rowling's narrative and kept the story's heart intact. Magical, delightful and by far the best of the series, in my opinion. Hopefully Nichols will stick around for the next installment.
Closing out the year in movies for me, Brokeback Mountain was magical in an entirely different way. Ang Lee brings Annie Proulx's tiny short story to the big screen with a gentle touch, remaining faithful to the narrative and characters, while expanding a fifteen minute read to an enjoyable, heart-breaking full-length movie about the transcendent nature of love . . . and the gritty realities of the world we live in.
Aah, 2005 . . . why it only seems like yesterday . . . when in fact it was a few days ago. But the reverberations from '05 are still shaking our foundations. How does one begin to select the 'best' anything?
The CD I played the most during 2005 was released in 2004 so Ron Sexsmith's Retriever doesn't count, although his live show/videotaping session has to rank as one of the absolute best shows I've ever seen (and I was impressed by Sir Paul McCartney and the great Jimmy Webb last year too!) So, what album was best? Hmmm. Was it Springsteen's acoustic masterpiece Devils and Dust? Or John Prine's Fair & Square? No! As fine as they were, the award must go to Ry Cooder's masterful Chavez Ravine which reintroduced Cooder to the world as creator of perhaps the best concept album ever conceived.
Best book? Well, as weird and quirky as Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man was. . . it captured the essence of the 60s so perfectly that it may be the one. Sure the Peanuts (also reviewed the 4th volume) collection is great, and that Monkees' biography was a fun read, but Donovan's recollections of hanging with the Fab Four, and competing with Bob Dylan, and chasing skirts all over the world, was pure entertainment!
I didn't get out to see too many movies during the year, but Peter Jackson's King Kong was a wild ride! The remastered DVD of the first King Kong ties with the remastered Wizard of Oz for DVD of the year. Together they show what can (and should) be done with the DVD format! Excellent!
I seem to spend all my reading and listening time reading and listening for review. It means among other things that I seldom have time to read or listen to the things that other people are reviewing, much as I might want to, which can be a bit of a bummer. There are rewards, though.
Quite possibly the book that impressed me the most this past year was Jane Lindskold's Child of a Rainless Year. This one would be a solid achievement for anyone, no matter what section of the bookstore they wind up in. It's an exceptional work that will be marketed as 'fantasy' although it certainly deserves a wider audience. Shades of Marquez, a dream-book grounded solidly in a reality that isn't always what we expect -- or want.
Glen Cook's The Tyranny of the Night just blew me away. I'm thinking this one might have jumped Cook's work up an order of magnitude: everything he's done before has been distilled to a very heady essence here. Although I suspect it's going to be a 'love it or hate it' kind of thing for most readers, for me it's an amazing example of style supporting the mood of a story, an almost broken-gaited pacing that melds with the action beautifully. It's one that stretches the realm of the possible for everyone who is going to come after.
I've heard it said that toward the end of his career, Ernest Hemingway couldn't finish a book. Depressing, if true, especially if it contributed to his untimely death. In the case of Under Kilimanjaro, it doesn't matter. This is an unexpected Hemingway, relaxed, vivid, nostalgic and funny, and one of the best books I've read in years. No, it doesn't really end, but you get the feeling that's because it's just a segment taken out of time and held up for your inspection, that it's a real slice of life with all its silliness and poignancy.
There have been a large number of reissues and new compilations of classics of science fiction recently, and I've had my share. If I have to pick one (I don't, really, but I'm going to), it's going to be The Best of Philip José Farmer. It's a heavily contested field, but Farmer's best is still explosive, pungent, witty, grim, and just plain old exciting. 'Riders of the Purple Wage' is still one of my favorite stories, and even better now than the first time I read it.
I seem to have been listening to a number of exceptional recordings this past year. Many of them were reissues, but I'd really like to concentrate on some new offerings. One of the most recent was Handel's Messiah, the new recording by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Intimate, clean, the power is there but it's subtle: Harnoncourt allows the music to speak for itself and, with his reliance on Handel's autograph scores, we are treated to The Messiah as Handel would have heard it.
A lot of early Western music wanders across my desk. Fortunately, I tend to like it. One collection that really caught my attention was The Dufay Collective's release of Music for Alfonso the Wise, a stunning collection of medieval music from Spain, evocative and sensuous. I was particularly impressed by the song cycle Cantigas de amigo. Compelling, intelligent, and sensitively performed.
I'm still not really sure if I can say I 'like' John Tavener's The Veil of the Temple, but it's an amazing achievement on all levels. An impressive piece of music, lasting some seven hours, of which the recording excerpts over two, and it does put the mind in a very different place. It's not easy, even to those of us whose ears are attuned to the vocabulary of the late twentieth century, but it is, at the very least, thought-provoking.
I think some will be surprised by this one: A Henry Reed Reunion, performed by James Reed, Alan Jabbour and Bertram Levy. In spite of what you may have heard in some dark corners of the Pub, I do listen to things that are not difficult and esoteric. (Of course, I could, with some justification, point out that to me, traditional fiddling is somewhat esoteric.) This one is superb: traditional tunes performed with integrity and a high level of conscious artistry that supports the music rather than supplanting it.
I did sneak out to see a movie: Brokeback Mountain. You have no idea how epoch-making this is. Movies are not something I do regularly, or even sporadically (although I probably should start). It means that I actually have to get up and go out. In this case, raves. It may have been the only movie I saw, but it was the only movie that I actively wanted to see. In fact, after I read Annie Proulx' original story, I had to see it. It's hard, sometimes, not to get swept away by the moment, but I have a feeling that this film will outlive the hype by quite a while. It ignores all the stereotypes that everyone is trying to pin on it and does so with sensitivity and power.
Topping my list of recordings for 2005 is Son Volt, Okemah and the Melody of Riot. Jay Farrar wrote a passel of powerful songs for Son Volt's comeback album after several years in which Farrar only recorded solo. His passion for American music ('6 String Belief,' 'Afterglow 61,' 'Gramophone') and progressive politics ('Jet Pilot,' 'Endless War') shine through, along with a gift for melody, hooks and poetic lyrics. Americana-influenced rock with a big heart.
Although it was released in 2003 and I wrote my review in the last days of 2004, Goodbye Babylon was published in January 2005. This six-disc set of American gospel music is a monumental achievement.
Coming out of left field to become one of my favorites of the year was Dark Snack by The Moaners, a guitar-and-drum duo fronted by Melissa Swingle, late of the swamp-rockers Trailer Bride. Swingle's smart song-writing, bluesy distorted slide guitar riffs and drawling vocals, with Laura King's propulsive drumming were a winning combo, and made 'Oh, Christy' my most-played track of the year.
M. Ward's Transistor Radio came out early in the year and was an early favorite, but it fell off my screen through the summer months. The return of gray skies and cold damp days drove me back to this disc, and I found Ward's sweetly sad songs, old-time soundscapes and fluid fingerpicking a perfect fit. No coincidence that Matt's a local talent, either. As he sings about the life of a traveling musician in one track, 'every town is all the same/when you've left your heart in the Portland rain.'
Bob Dylan demonstrated once again why he deserves the title of most important figure in 20th Century popular music with the six-hour documentary by Martin Scorsese, No Direction Home. The accompanying two-CD set of the same title provides an excellent overview of Dylan's transition from his early folk period to his controversial transformation as a rocker, and was essential listening in 2005.
Two overlooked gems in the country genre were Robbie Fulks' Georgia Hard and Begonias by Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell. The former is a rock-solid exploration of classic country sounds and styles, the latter a sweet countrified update of '70s singer/songwriter folk.
One of my favorite reads of the year was Dan Simmons epic, Olympos. Though not quite as satisfying as its prequel, Ilium, this tome had all of Simmons' trademarks: taut action, solid characters and a top-notch story that not only keeps you turning the pages but also makes you think a little.
Diana Abu Jaber was one of many memoirists who took some heat in 2005 for the use of novelistic techniques, including composite characters. But her book, The Language of Baklava -- the tale of her chaotic coming of age, partly in the United States and partly in Jordan, anchored by her love of food and cooking -- is an utterly engaging read. If you can get through a chapter without both laughing aloud and having your stomach growl with hunger, you're obviously not paying attention.
And I have to give a nod to my friends John Baur and Mark Summers, otherwise known as The Pirate Guys. Their second book, Pirattitude! So You Wanna be a Pirate? Here's How! has gone into a third printing. It succeeds because it's just as absurd and whimsical as its authors, two of the funniest -- and nicest -- guys I've ever known.
It was a slim year in terms of gigs for me, but there was nothing to complain about from the annual Pick-a-thon held in July near Woodburn, Oregon. There were tons of top-notch acoustic acts, highlighted for me by folk-jazz songstress Jolie Holland and the languidly intense warbling of Freakwater.
My favorite indoor gig of the year was turned in by Andrew Bird in April at the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland. Watching Bird recreate his recordings that feature layers of violin, guitar and whistling behind his vocals was a real treat. And the gig had the added advantage of introducing me to the smart folk-pop of Seattle's Laura Veirs.
I never watched even a nanosecond of Joss Whedon's TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but I became an instant fan of Whedon's work with Serenity, the film debut of the characters from his Firefly TV series. In one stroke, this young filmmaker returned fun sci-fi to the big screen and swept aside the bloated monstrosity of the Star Wars finale, Revenge of the Sith. It's a simple formula: put a Western in space, with lots of action, hip irreverent humor, good (and good-looking) actors and a tight script. The special effects were fine, but they served the story, they didn't overwhelm it. The concurrent release of the existing episodes of Firefly on DVD became one of my favorite video releases of the year and gave me something to watch until the Serenity sequel comes along.
Entire Contents Copyright 2006, Green Man Review except where specifically noted. All Rights Reserved.
Updated LLS 9:22 PM PST 01/28/2006