Sunday, the 12th of February, 2006

The next fortnightly issue will be published on Sunday, the 26th of February, 2006

Featured Reviews

January can be a rough month. After the champagne glasses have been washed and returned to the cabinet following New Year's Eve, it sometimes seems there's not much to do but hunker down and wait for spring. So, when word spread around the office that a few special kegs of oatmeal stout were to be tapped in honor of Robbie Burns I made one of my rare visits to the pub to get a pint or two before they ran out. I'm glad I got there early.

Not long after I'd settled into a seat in the corner and gotten my first taste of the stout . . . smooth as a baby's bum it was, with a hint of chocolate in the finish and a head so creamy you'd swear you could whip it; but I digress. . . as I was savoring the stout the door burst open and a lanky fellow in a kilt arrived. He was leading a rag tag lot of close to forty. Tartans were in great abundance and there was no doubt that this self selected voluntary clan was out to celebrate the poet laureate of Scotland with a Burns Supper here in the pub.

What a sight they were. They ranged in age from a few who seemed to have slipped off from Hogwarts Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry, sporting their class emblems, to geezers with plenty of grey in their hair but spry of step and bright of eye. There was one bespectacled professorial chap in a tartan tie that you wouldn't have noticed save for his face being painted blue. Some of the younger lot seemed to be returning to the old ways and sported druidic looking tattoos. By the time they all tumbled through the door there wasn't a seat left.

I found myself sharing the corner with a few of them including a raffish young witch who tucked a fiddle case carefully behind her. Close by there was a hale fellow with a big drum, a balding gent with guitar and fiddle cases along with a book of Burns poetry, a wee little Goth lass and a vibrant woman who seemed to have forgotten that her lineage was more likely to include a leprechaun or two rather than Wallace or Bruce.

The ostensible head of this clan was enjoying his role as toastmaster, but it was clear that his lovely lady was really the one in charge. Belying the stereotype of Scots' parsimony, I noted that the pub keeper was handed a well-weighted purse and told to keep the food and drink coming for one and all. Serving trays with steaming dishes were brought in and carried out to the kitchen to wait their proper serving time. And it seemed that for every one of the visiting crowd there also appeared a bottle of single malt; there were Highland, Lowland, and Islays of every description. I thought to myself, 'Oh, what a night this is going to be!' as I poured a dram of a peaty 16 year-old Highland, refilled my stout and accepted a passing mug of cock-a-leekie soup.

Now, I'd read a little about Burns Suppers and knew there were Burns Societies that held highly ritualized and formal affairs with specific toasts and a format that must be followed. One of the visitors explained that their approach was instead predicated on having the kind of party they assume Burns would have enjoyed, 'Food and drink in abundance, shameless flirtation, jokes and poems, song and sentiment, how can you go wrong?'

Periodically someone would ring their glass to gather attention so that they might offer a toast or read a bit of Burns. A funny youngster with the ears of an orange tabby cat read the bard's paean to the ritual center piece of the meal, haggis, that amalgam of oats and sheep parts you don't want to know about, upon its emergence from the kitchen.

'Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great Chieftain o' the Puddin-race!
A boon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang 's my arm.'

Somehow, my own interest in the stuff waned at the lines:

'Tenching your gushhing entrails bright
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!'

The several regular players in the Neverending Session were much expanded by the many guests who brought out instruments of all sorts once the haggis course was over and a sufficient quantity of single malt had been consumed. The lovely young witch with the fiddle case who sat in my corner played bewitchingly indeed. There were singers and dulcimer players and drummers and fiddlers. (Fortunately, no one brought bagpipes.) The material ranged from the expected, Burns' 'Auld Lang Syne' and 'John Barleycorn', to the incongruous, 'Rocky Raccoon' seemed to be traditional with this crowd.

Well, as I said, I had just gone down to get a pint of oatmeal stout with every intention of leaving when the pint was gone. Instead, it was nearly three in the morning when I stumbled out the door. By then the pub was definitely out of stout, not to mention low on brown ale and a few other provisions. I was stuffed with haggis and salmon, tatties and 'neeps, shortbread and Dundie Cake, all of which moderated the many wee drams of single malt that had been pressed upon me. (I tried to resist, really.) I'd heard poems by Burns and a few other Scotsmen, but I swear someone read Ginsberg or Kerouac, too. All in all, I think Burns would have enjoyed himself.

Now, with Valentine's Day just around the corner, we might yet make it to Spring.

Paul Brandon is in a Brisbane-based Celtic music band by the name of Súnas. A rather tasty sounding band at that! Paul also likes to review music for us from time to time. So how to combine the two, particularly when you're off to Tasmania to play and visit an old mate? This is how: 'This is kind of a funny omnibus to be writing, really. At the moment, I'm sitting on a plane at about 35,000 feet, on the way to my first-ever band tour of Tasmania, a beautiful island to the south of Australia. At this particular moment, I'm existing in the peaceful mental zone between checking in an obscene amount of heavy band equipment (and getting away with it!) and the point on the other end where we put the gear back together to see if it survived the trip. And what better way to pass the time than to listen to a bunch of CDs? I'm battling my self-consciousness at the moment as there's nothing more tossy than someone using a laptop on a plane, especially when there are band members next to me who keep trying to poke keys and generally put me off.' Read his Excellence in Writing Award winning look now!

Cat Eldridge found Tim Pratt's first novel to be quite good: 'It shouldn't surprise you that I am a rather finicky reader. I have been known to read the beginnings of a half dozen novels without finding one that is of sufficient interest to keep me reading to the very end. Hell, I've read a hundred pages of a forthcoming novel and said 'Enough!' more than a few times. So heed me when I say that The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl is even better as a work of horror tinged mythic fiction than Neil Gaiman's American Gods, and is equally as good as much of the work done by such writers as Stephen King and Roger Zelazny. Yes, it's that good. And it was so good that it was a novel I knew I was going to thoroughly enjoy reading within pages of starting it.' Read his detailed review to see why he thinks a cafe that serves Guinness (!) is a great idea!

Gary Whitehouse says Schultze Gets the Blues 'is a quiet little film about the transformative power of music. Well, art of any kind, but in this instance, it's music.' His well-crafted review tells exactly what type of music it's 'bout! More music in the guise of old-time band Frog Holler was the subject of GAry's interview with Darren Schlappich who, he says, 'sounds laid-back and at ease, but he's a very busy guy right now. The band he fronts, Frog Holler, is releasing its sixth CD, Haywire this month (February 2006), and as head of his own record label (ZoBird, named after his two cats), and acting as his own publicist, he's got his hands full. Not to mention his 'day job' as an independent businessman servicing the taps in the bar and tavern trade in his eastern Pennsylvania neighborhood.' Read their Excellence in Writing Award winning conversation here!

Donna Bird has become rather smitten with pirates: 'A few weeks ago, when we were on a long browse in our local Borders Books and Music store, I discovered that the history section had a surprising number of books about pirates. Pirates have certainly been colorful characters in many classic works of fiction, including at the very least Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Peter Pan, and Howard Pyle's lovely illustrated Book of Pirates! Since I already had copies of Bandits and Bandits at Sea when Harcourt sent The Pirates Laffite, I thought I would review them all together.' And so she did in an lovingly detailed review which you can read here!

A novel by Alison Goodman gets accolades from Jayme Lynn Blaschke even if it ain't quite perfect: 'If prizes were awarded for the best speculative fiction titles, Singing the Dogstar Blues would surely garner its share of accolades. It's witty and clever, projecting a degree of dignity while at the same time not taking itself too seriously. On top of that, it's relevant to the story at hand. Fortunately for readers, this young adult novel by Australia's Alison Goodman is more than just a pretty title. Goodman's story is an engaging character-centered time travel adventure that -- while uneven at times -- manages to overcome its shortcomings and deliver the goods.' Read his Excellence in Writing Award winning review for why this was a great read!

J.J.S. Boyce had the honour of reviewing Neal Asher's The Voyage of the Sable Keech: 'Some six months ago I read and reviewed Neal Asher's Brass Man. I'd heard of neither author nor title previously, and it strikes me now how odd this is. I've decided that Asher's future history is an instant epic and his endlessly fascinating, alien universe and the dozens of major characters within on par with the imaginings of Lucas or Roddenberry. If the world of the Polity has not yet taken its place in the collective speculative fiction unconsciousness, perhaps it is because, with six published novels in as many years, Asher wastes no time letting the dust settle. He's gonna be big outside of the UK, he just needs to give us a chance to catch up with our reading.' Read his superb review for why he's looking forward to the next volume in the series!

Wendy Donahue found time in her busy life to do a review for us: 'An extraordinary novel by author Judith Berman, Bear Daughter is a sequel to 'Lord Stink' (Asimov's, August 1997, reprinted in Lord Stink and Other Stories, Small Beer Press, 2002.). Cloud, an 12 year old girl who has lived all her life in the form of a bear, wakes one morning to find she has taken on human form. The daughter of a human mother and bear deity father, Cloud must discover the reason for this transformation and her place and purpose in life. She embarks on an journey through realms both mortal and immortal in a classic coming-of-age tale told from a fresh perspective.'

Denise Dutton found a novel that has a cool take on early American history: 'I'd bet that early colonists were surprised, even frightened, by some of the strange new creatures America had to offer. But I'm sure nothing surprised them more than seeing dragons soaring overhead. Wait, you never heard about the dragons? Looks like schools just don't seem to teach anything really important nowadays. Or maybe that's because dragons don't exist in the history we know. But what if they did? Well, they'd probably be pretty close to what Mike Resnick describes in Dragon America.'

If our Editor, Cat Eldridge, had a weakness above all others, it's for reference works -- many of which are in his office here. The latest one he reviews is of a musical nature: 'What's your favourite Dead song? And do you have a fair idea of what the lyrics for that song mean? Do I have a deal for you. In one very well-crafted package, you can have both the lyrics and David Dodd's explanation of what they mean. The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, which is based upon the Web site of the same name, is without doubt the coolest look at a band's lyrics which I've had the pleasure to peruse! Now, I expected nothing less, having made ongoing use of the Web site for many years to settle questions I had about the Dead lyrics, but I was rather surprised how well the Web site adapted to the printed medium. The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics sets the 'gold standard' for how to do an annotated lyrics reference guide.' Go read his review to see what a long, strange trip this book was from Web site to printed work!

Lory Hess was reminded of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsinger of Pern trilogy, a comparison which did not help this novel: 'I find McCaffrey's treatment of the musical element in particular more detailed and compelling than Marley's. Singer in the Snow describes a complicated system of modal tuning and instrumentation, but it remains remote, without meaning for the reader, who hears reportage of the musicians' devotion to their art but doesn't experience the process of their training.'

David Kidney wryly notes that 'Every once in a while comes a book that simply captures your attention and interest because it deals with a topic you, the reader, just happen to be familiar with. It may be an obscure tome on 17th century antique vases from Portugal, or it could be a chronological look at 50 Years of Great Recordings. Or, it might be a book like Bald.' Did I note that author is named Kevin Baldwin? Need I say more of this review?

ALBUMS: the Stories Behind 50 Years of Great Recordings gets a thumbs up from David: 'This weighty tome is over 10x13, and contains 320 pages of colour pictures and text. It's not meant for bedtime reading, because it is simply too heavy to hold up. You need to be awake and alert to browse through it. You'll note that no author or editor is named. That's because it seems to have been created by committee. Johnny Black, Mark Brend, Michael Heatley, Thomas Jerome, John Morrish, Rikky Rooksby and David Simons are all listed on the back-flap, as contributors.' Now read his review of this superb piece of eye candy.

John Niven's Music From Big Pink: a novella is a metafiction based on the making of The Band's most well-known recording. Which is why David notes that 'This is a brave and exciting approach to criticism. It's not a pleasant read, and you will still need Barney Hoskyn's marvelous Band biography Across The Great Divide for the recording details, but you will find yourself responding to the prose, as you did to the music. This is powerful stuff, and well done.' If you're confused, go read his review.

Of Margaret Mahy, Alchemy, Zoe Selengut notes ' Roland Fairfield is seventeen and almost intolerably self-satisfied. He is well-liked, has a smart and popular girlfriend, and is a member of that elite group of students whose jokes amuse his teachers and who have read all the right books. When his English teacher asks him to stay for a moment after class, he's sure it will be for praise or encouragement. What else?' Quite a bit actually -- read her review to why this novel works so well!

Robert M. Tilendis may be feeling his weary bones as they age these days: 'I have had the distinct pleasure lately of being in line for a number of reissues and new editions of works by some of the great writers of the Golden Age of science fiction and fantasy. Maybe it's just that no one else is old enough to remember these authors and so snatch them up, but we won't follow that line of inquiry past this point. The most recent of these treasures to cross my desk is the late Avram Davidson's Adventures in Unhistory, originally published in 1993, the year of Davidson's greatly lamented death.' No matter your age, read his review to see why everything by Avram Davidson is still a great read!

He found that 'Charles de Lint's Triskell Tales 2 is just as it claims: a collection of de Lint's chapbooks from the last six years, those stories that he sends to his family and friends during the holiday season. The six stories in this collection all take place in Newford and give us new events in the lives of some old friends and some new ones.' Go read his review to see why these charmed him to no end! Oh, did I mention that if you pre-order it from the publisher that a copy of the ever-so-rare annual chapbook that Charles and his lovely wife, MaryAnn Harris, do for a select group comes with your order? The only copies I've seen at Green Man are the ones taht our Editor keeps locked up in his office in bookcase that even magic can't open!

Robert quotes another favourite Green Man writer, Patricia A. McKillip, from her Harpist in the Wind novel ('Night is not something to endure until dawn. It is an element, like wind or fire. Darkness is its own kingdom; it moves to its own laws, and many living things dwell in it.') and goes on to say in his review of Anne Bishop's Black Jewels trilogy note: 'It may seem odd to begin a review of a trilogy by Anne Bishop with a quote from Patricia McKillip, but the idea expressed is fundamental to The Black Jewels. Besides, the hardest part of a review is the beginning, especially when one is faced with a story that is rich, complex, flawed, and brilliant. That's where I find myself with this story. It's one of those works in which the plot details are not really all that important, the associations are many and diverse, the writing seductive, and the characters even more so.' Now go read his Excellence in Writing Award winning review for why these books mean so much to him.

Joseph Stanton's The Important Books -- Children's Books as Art and Literature]meets with approval from Robert: 'I am more than a little pleased to learn that I am not the only person who would think of comparing a children's picture book with Les Tres Rich Heures du Duc de Berry, which is exactly what Joseph Stanton does in his essay on The Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall and Barbara Cooney. This is only one of the thoughtful and illuminating studies in The Important Books. (And please do pardon the pun.)' Go read his wonderful review!

Keith Donohue's The Stolen Child gets favorably reviewed by Gary Whitehouse: 'Changelings, faeries, hobgoblins and their ilk have played a major role in the mythology of Europeans and Americans for centuries. Keith Donohue, drawing on a Yeats poem about changeling folk legends, has brought this mythology into the modern world, giving us a thoughtful examination of the terrors and joys of childhood and its loss.' Read Gary's review to see how this writer used this ancient tale as a coming of age story.

Bob Spitz's The Beatles: The Biography can be summed up by Gary rather succinctly: 'Finally. A book about The Beatles that is worthy of its subject.' His whole Excellence in Writing Award review is quite a bit more detailed, so go read it now!

Richard Condon found a worthy of being reviewed recording in Long Story Short: 'Clive Gregson is a good example of what is often called a "cult musician." This is a polite way of saying that he has a loyal following and an impressive history of producing excellent work, often in very good company, and is highly appreciated by his fans, but despite often being on the verge of a successful career, he has never quite made it into stardom. He had minor success with his 1980s group Any Trouble, toured and recorded successfully with Christine Collister, worked with Collister some more when they were both members of one of Richard Thompson's best-ever bands, has performed with one of the incarnations of Iain Matthews's group Plainsong and has worked extensively with fellow cult musicians Boo Hewerdine and Eddi Reader.' Read hiss Excellence in Writing Award winning review for all the details on this impressive recording!

I think the first song I heard from Rosanne Cash that grabbed my attention was 'Runaway Train', with the great line, 'Blind boys and gamblers, they invented the blues.' David Kidney in his review of her new recording notes that she 'is the daughter of the legendary Johnny Cash and his first wife Vivian. She has a brand new album out which is being strongly promoted. This disc, Blue Moons and Broken Hearts is an collection of her earlier work. It covers a variety of styles and sounds, as Rosanne searched for her own voice, but it also shows that there was always something there to work with. The liner notes talk about her first recording, for the German label Ariola, being a mistake. That record is not represented here. There are no mistakes on this collection!' And yes, 'Runaway Train' is on this collection!

Our reviewer loves this artist: 'Dion DiMucci is cool. He is the essence of New York City cool. In the late 1950s he released his first recordings with a group called The Timberlanes. In '58 he formed The Belmonts, and sang doo-wop. He passed up a seat on the plane that Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper and Richie Valens took on the "day the music died." He became a heroin addict, and then managed to beat it. For a while he tried out a softer sound, and had a hit with "Abraham, Martin & John." He found God, and had a career singing Christian music for a few years. He made an album with Phil Spector, and a few years later a comeback record produced by Dave Edmunds. He has never gone away. Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Lou Reed have sung his praises, written songs for him and sung backup on his albums. He's just plain cool, man! And...he's back again.' Read David's Excellence in Writing Award winning review for why this is a truly great recording!

Our intrepid reviewer says 'Acoustic music. These days it's everywhere. These are five recent releases that display the true sound of guitars, mandolins, fiddles, and the human voice...even the odd drum beat, in a variety of styles that are linked not only by instrumentation but by inspiration.' 'Nuff said. Go read his review of, breath deep now, Kirk Elliott's Fiddler On The Rocks, Foghorn Stringband's Weiser Sunrise, Horse Flies' Where the Rivers Flow North, Marley's Ghost's Spooked, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Acoustic. Sounds like some rather tasty offerings!

Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar is a Legacy/Columbia release that David gushes over: ''This is one beautiful package! Four CDs (65 tracks) and a hefty 148-page book filled with pictures and text, all together in a sturdy box, with a gorgeous photo of a Gibson L5 on the front. Mmmm, tasty! ...Four solid and exciting discs of guitar music. Really, there is something here for everyone, and if you, like me, appreciate the instrument, you'll love Progressions.' Read his Excellence in Writing Award winning commentary for all the details!

Jon Hayward & Alistair Gillies' O'Carolan's Concerto and The Demon Barbers' Waxed got the once-over from Lars Nilsson: 'Here we have two records to challenge our conception of what traditional music is. And maybe the answer is not quite what we expect. The word traditional can be used in two ways. Either we use it as a label for the music itself -- music without a known originator that has passed through the generations by oral transmission -- or we can use it to label the way the music is performed. So a group like Steeleye Span could be said to be traditional when it comes to the music it performs, but non-traditional in the way it performs, while a singer-songwriter often performs non-traditional songs in a traditional way. So let us look at the CDs in question.'

Robert M. Tilendis found a great album in The Best of Corvus Corax: 'The German pop scene has got to be the one to watch. We already know they're into Nubian drumming and electro-medieval pop, and now I'm listening to Corvus Corax, a group of street minstrels originally from East Germany who do a heady mix of medieval and contemporary world-beat/rock music. I had never heard of them before I received this disc for review: from zero to fan in 13 tracks.' Read his review for why he found this recording so enchanting!

A spot of popular music from long ago was next for Robert: ' There was a time not so long ago (well, geologically speaking, at any rate) when court music and popular music were not so far apart. Say about four hundred years, give or take a decade. (This is really to some extent a slight exaggeration -- the minute I wrote it I remembered that The Magic Flute was written as a popular entertainment. It's not so far off base, though.) This was brought home to me in my back-to-back listening of John Dowland's Seven Teares and Fortune My Foe, popular music from the same period.' Read his Excellence in Writing Award winning review for all the details on these recordings!

Let's see... We have here a recording by the Hackensaw Boys (Love What You Do), another by Psychograss (Now Hear This), one by Druha Trava & Peter Rowan (New Freedom Bell), and a tasty offering by Alison Brown( Stolen Moments). As Gary Whitehouse notes of this bonnie bunch, 'Modern bluegrass music has moved in many different directions in the past 30 years or so. These four discs demonstrate some of the different types of music that currently incorporate bluegrass instruments and themes, including acoustic folk, jazzy newgrass and Celtic-bluegrass hybrids.' Cool. Now go read his review for which recordings got his mojo rising!

Two fine recordings -- John Lawless' Five & Dime and The Cherryholmes's self-titled recording -- get a look-see by Gary: ' Here are two first recordings in the bluegrass field: one a debut by an established musician, the other by a family of newcomers. I was shocked when, after listening to Five & Dime a couple of times, I discovered that it's banjo player John Lawless' first recording. It's that good.' He goes on to say of the latter recording that 'The Cherryholmes family took the bluegrass world by storm in 2005 with their self-titled debut. Small wonder. They've got loads of charm and ample chops.' If you like bluegrass, read this review for two recordings you'll want in your collection!

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archived LLS -- 03/11/06 -- 67:08PM PST