Michael Newton, Editor, Victorian Fairy Tales

Cover of Victorian Fairy Tales, edited by Michael NewtonFairy tales weave a complicated dance between children’s stories and sophisticated adult commentary, often within the same story. Pinning down a definition of what constitutes a fairy tale can sometimes feel like nailing water to a tree, but certain elements are constant: there will always be magic, and magical creatures (although, as editor Michael Newton points out in the Introduction to Victorian Fairy Tales, “Often fairy tales include no actual fairy.”); there will be a problem that requires magical intervention of some sort. Outside of that, the field is wide open.

The Victorian Age is frequently painted as repressed and rigid, even to the point of covering their piano legs (not true); so for me, it was impossible to pass up a collection of fairy tales that promised to dispel that grim facade. I’m glad I raised my hand for this book. It’s an excellent example of the dance mentioned above, if a bit confusing in spots I’ll cover that towards the end. First, the good stuff (quite a lot!):

The aforementioned Introduction is thorough and thoughtful, moving from a context-setting discussion of fairy tales into a more specific discussion of “Sources, Inspirations, Origins, then to “Fairyland and the Real World.” It’s a long Introduction, and fascinating all on its own, but as with most Introductions I recommend reading it after consuming the rest of the book. Scholarly discussions, for me, tend to dry out the following entertainment — and I find it endlessly frustrating to be teased with references to the stories I’m about to read!

I have the same comment about “Note on the Texts,” “Select Bibliography,” and “A Chronology of the Literary Fairy Tale.” All very good, all very interesting — I loved the Chronology, especially, because I’m a geek about seeing facts laid out into this sort of context. Did you know that Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was published the same year the first Women’s Suffrage Committee was founded? I didn’t. And A Christmas Carol came out the year after the Coal Mines Act, which stopped young children and women from working in the coal mines. And . . . well, read it for yourself.

Moving on to the stories themselves, the Prologue features “Rumpel-stilts-kin” by the Grimm Brothers and “The Princess and the Peas” by Andersen. These are short and potent, with a pointed jab or two at the rich and powerful; the irony is particularly strong in the latter story, to my way of thinking. I found myself mentally swapping “princess” with “lady/virgin,” which heightened the dryly sardonic tone of the tale considerably without taking away from the point already being made.

The following stories, beginning with Robert Southley’s “The Story of the Three Bears” and ending with Kipling’s “Dymchurch Flit”, range from similarly ironic to flat-out fun reading. Southley’s tale — one of the fun ones — has a very different protagonist than the young girl we’re used to seeing in modern versions: “She could not have been a good, honest old Woman . . . If she had been a good little old Woman, she would have waited till the Bears came home . . . But she was an impudent, bad old Woman, and set about helping herself.” I particularly enjoyed the typography in this story, with differing fonts showing the differing Bear voices. This story was intended to be read aloud to a child, with acted out emphasis, and reads as such.

Several of the stories in this collection were new to me, and completely delightful. There is a typical three-brother quest story by John Ruskin; there are deeper, slower, more philosophical stories by George MacDonald and Mary deMorgan–especially notable, to me, in that they deal with increased age as a strength rather than a weakness; there are amusing, ironic tales from Ford Maddox Ford, Andrew Lang, and Kenneth Grahame. The collection closes with a wonderful Rapunzel/Gulliver’s Travels mashup by E. Nesbit and a slightly difficult-to-read Kipling story laden with dialect — which bring me to my only real criticism of this book.

The footnote format was particularly irritating to me; not only must you turn to the back of the book to find the “Explanatory Notes,” they’re called out inline with asterisks rather than numbers, then sorted in the Notes only by page numbers. I dislike having to stop mid sentence to turn pages, and I especially dislike having to search for the note in question. In most cases, it was easy enough to pass over the asterisks, but in some cases, such as the Kipling story, I spent as much time looking up words and context as I did reading the tale itself. That being said, the “Explanatory Notes” were very well done, clear and concise, and for a word geek like me who grew up reading the dictionary for fun, entirely readable just by itself.

I do wish, as a matter of personal preference, that the “Select Bibliography” had been moved to the back of the book. It also would have been nice to have a bio of the editor, along with information on his other projects, the web site for Oxford University Press, and so on; the omission of clearly presented Internet-related resources in this day and age gives this book a very old-fashioned feel.

Considered only as a book of fairy tales, however, this collection is superb. Many of the stories are overtly political satire, and all are (thanks to the thorough front matter) as much a window into the time when they were written as simple entertainment. Whether you as a reader are interested in the historical analysis or more inclined towards a good book to relax with on a lazy afternoon, Victorian Fairy Tales is an excellent choice.

(Oxford University Press, 2015)

[Editor’s note: Dr. Newton is a member of the faculty at Leiden University, and the author of Age of Assassins: A History of Assassination in Europe and America, 1865-1981 (Faber and Faber, 2012) and edited The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories: From Elizabeth Gaskell to Ambrose Bierce (Penguin 2012).]

The Gothard Sisters, Mountain Rose

Cover of the Gothard Sisters Mountain Rose albumThe Gothard Sisters (Greta, Willow and Solana Gothard) are three young sisters from the U.S. Pacific Northwest. They started out as a classical violin trio. Their first album was released in 2006 with them playing Christmas songs as a trio. Some years later they turned to Celtic music and added more instruments. Mountain Rose is their third album as a Celtic trio, released two years after their previous album Compass. As on the last one they mix instrumental tunes with songs, the difference being that on the new one they have written many of the songs themselves, whereas on the last ones the tunes were written by the trio but the songs were traditional or by other people. Another difference is that on the new one they play everything themselves. And they play a lot of instruments, violins of course, but also guitar, mandolins, bass, dulcimer, autoharp, harmonica, whistles and percussion, and of course all three of them sing.

The sisters describe themselves as a Celtic group and it is hard to disagree, particularly given that the definition of Celtic is quite broad. But there are a lot of other influences as well. Mountain Rose exhibits traces of bluegrass fiddling, African drum beats and of course their Classical training, as well as passages that remind me of the ”spaced out” music you could hear in the late 1960s.

The Gothard sisters open the album with Andy M Stewart’s “Queen of Argyll” filled with instrumental interludes and harmony singing. A strong opener, one of the best songs on the album, a track that does what it is supposed to do, to make you interested in listening to the rest. Of the other songs not written by the group I like “All Through the Night,” a traditional Welsh lullaby, the best. A soft slow song well suited to the girls. I am not that impressed by their reading of ”Auld Lang Syne” though. They rush through it, and at the end you understand why; they turn it in to a fast, furious reel. And that part is superb. Probably a great number to finish one of the girls’ 120 concerts a year, but as a song it does not work on record. Their version of Kate Rusby’s ”I Courted a Sailor” is much better, though not reaching the heights of the original.

In my mind the best of their own songs is “Grace O’Malley” co-written by Greta, Willow and Solana. When I first listened to the record, without checking the booklet, I had it down as an Irish traditional, which is high praise coming from me. The other two original songs are both written by Greta, and show great promise for the future.

Then there are the instrumentals, often used as showcases for the girls’ instrumental power. ”The Bandit” turns from a slow tune to a duel between fiddles and percussion, “Cat in the Bush” is very Scottish in its fiddling, both the slow and the quick parts, “Mountain Rose Waltz” is just plain beautiful and “Chaos in La Casa” has some interesting rhythmic patterns in the middle part. All these tunes were written by Willow. They also throw in a traditional tune, “St Anne’s Reel,” played in a very traditional manner, with some heavy bluegrass influences.

All in all a good album by three very talented sisters. I would love to see them live, where they also add Irish dancing.

(Self-released, 2015)

[Editor’s note: Reviewer Peter Massey reviewed The Gothard Sisters 2011 release Christmas on Sleeping Hedgehog, our sister site. Peter Massey also reviewed The Gothard Sisters’ Story Girl. The Gothard Sisters have a website, and tweet as @gothardsisters. You can hear their version of “The Queen of All Argyle” on their website. The Gothard Sisters also have YouTube channel.]

A Meal at Kinrowan Estate

Mrs. Ware and her most wonderful staff prepared one of my favorite eventide meals tonight.

It’s the simple meals that I like the best and we do eat locally — very locally — most of the time. Do follow along, if you’ve ever wondered about our usual Kinrowan table fare!

What’s New This Fortnight

logo_titaniaIt’s been an usually hot summer at the Kinrowan Estate with temperatures often near thirty degrees centigrade. The old stone church that we converted to part of the Library has been very popular with folks here as it stays cool during even the hottest weather. You’ll find me there with an iced tea and whatever novel I’m currently reading.

First up is Leona’s interview with SJ Tucker, our Summer Queen. She says, ‘The shelves and windowsills were crowded with ravens; the hedgehogs took the first row of seats; even a few of the local fae could be seen peeking shyly around corners now and again…’

Let’s follow that up with a post of our Summer Queen on some things literary. My questions were on the first book that she remembers reading, her best beloved books as a child, the books she recommend that young children read and finally I ask her about her children’s book, Rabbit’s Song.

The Laundry Files series by Charles Stross chronicles the struggles of a British very secret agency against really monstrous supernatural beings. Until The Annihilation Score, they were narrated by Bob Howard, a computational demonologist. The Annihilation Score is narrated by Bob’s wife, Dominique O’Brien (her friends call her Mo) who’s an applied combat epistemologist and a violinist whose instrument is both alive and truly evil. Need I say I found it the best entry in this series in a long time?

Reynard has a review of Harry Long’s The Waltons Guide to Irish Music and notes that ‘The subtitle of this book is A Comprehensive A-Z Guide to Irish and Celtic Music in All Its Forms and for once this is an accurate statement. It is indeed an indispensable guide to Irish music in all its varied facets.’

Gary reviews The Earnest Lovers Sing Sad Songs EP which centered around one musician in particular: ‘Pete Krebs has been a fixture on the Portland music scene for at least 20 years.’

Donna has a look at a recording she missed reviewing sometime back: ‘I figured I would review Band of Gypsies 2 while my impressions of the most recent Taraf de Haïdouks CD were still fresh.’

Let’s finish off with the Tinker’s Own performing ‘The Tinker’s Black Kettle‘, a spritely song composed by Charles de Lint for his novel The Little Country.

Taraf de Haïdouks and Kočani Orkestar, Band of Gypsies 2

When I was doing background research for my review of the most recent Taraf de Haïdouks CD, Of Lovers, Gamblers and Parachute Skirts, I ran across a reference to Band of Gypsies 2, their 2011 collaboration with Kočani Orkestar. That sounded really familiar, but when I checked my files, I didn’t see that I’d written a review for it. Then a day or so later I was rooting around in my box of CDs waiting to be reviewed, and lo and behold, there it was! Well, awesome! I figured I would review Band of Gypsies 2 while my impressions of the most recent Taraf de Haïdouks CD were still fresh.

Cover of Taraf De Haidouks Band of Gypsies 2 CDBand of Gypsies 2 marks a very exciting collaboration between two of Europe’s most popular Gypsy bands. The fourteen members of Taraf de Haïdouks hail from a region in Romania where Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion and the language derives from so-called Vulgar Latin. They play primarily violins and accordions. The thirteen members of Kočani Orkestar come from the Republic of Macedonia, are Muslim, and speak a Slavic language. They play primarily brass instruments, trumpets and tubas. Put all these men and their instruments together and you have a real wall of sound!

The CD is called Band of Gypsies 2 because members of Kočani Orkestar appeared on three tracks of the earlier Taraf de Haïdouks Band of Gypsies CD, which came out in 2001. According to the liner notes, the bands got together for just twelve days to write, arrange, perform and record the twelve tracks on the CD. It’s over an hour’s worth of high-energy music, plus three videos of the band performing two songs from the CD and one that is not otherwise included. The videos, by the way, are a lot of fun to watch but are not very high quality. The official video for the album, based on a live performance in 2010, is available on YouTube for your viewing pleasure. These guys are so GOOD!

Although the liner notes don’t give details on which band members play on each of the tracks, the impression I have from listening is that everyone plays on all of them. The individual compositions range in duration from about just over three to well over eight minutes. They are remarkably complex, typically going through multiple changes in rhythm and tempo, as instruments and vocalists weave into and out of the mix. While most of the tracks have some vocal parts, I count four that are entirely instrumental. All the compositions and arrangements are superb!

Track 1, “I Am a Gigolo,” is very lively, with fiddles and a cimbalom predominating and a flute in the background. Until the tubas kicked in, I thought it sounded like an Irish song with Middle Eastern overtones. Track 3, “Mandrulita Mea” starts slow and speeds up, with brass and cimbalom as the dominant sounds. I loved the fast violins and exotic feel of Track 5, “Turceasca a Lu Kalo.” Track 8, “Dikhél Khelél,” is another instrumental, strong on clarinet and percussion (one member of Kočani Orkestar plays the darbuka, a small hand drum). Track 10, simply titled “Sara,” opens with a rather mournful vocal accompanied by accordion and violins, then shifts into a piece that sounds like belly dance music to me. The final track, “Gypsy Sahara,” is another instrumental, this one heavy on the drums and horns. This is the instrumental featured on the official video for the album. Fabulous!

Like Of Lovers, Gamblers and Parachute Skirts, the CD is packaged in a paperboard tri-fold case with liner notes tucked into the center pocket. Notes are in both English and French. The centerfold of the liner notes is a posed group photo of the band with their instruments. What an amazing bunch! One of the panels of the case also shows photos of the band members with their names and instruments. Of course this is just a little CD case, so the photos are each about the size of my little fingernail, and the text is very small. You can find more about this CD and Taraf de Haïdouks on their website.

(Crammed Discs, 2011)

The Earnest Lovers, Sing Sad Songs EP

Cover of The Earnest Lovers Sing Sad SongsPete Krebs has been a fixture on the Portland music scene for at least 20 years. His punk-grunge band Hazel was signed to Sub-Pop, and about the same time he was also playing Rounders-inspired bluegrass in Golden Delicious. Since then he has played solo and fronted the swing-jazz band The Stolen Sweets and the Western Swing band The Portland Playboys. It was while that band was playing at the local honky-tonk Landmark Saloon that he met Leslie Beia, who has been active in Portland music for a while now, too. They hit it off and discovered a mutual fondness for hard country music, which led to the formation of The Earnest Lovers.

Their first gig was auspicious, an impromptu onstage jam at the 2014 Pickathon. A month later I got to see them when they opened for (and in some eyes outshone) Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers at Mississippi Studios. Now they’ve moved to the next stage of their career with the release of a six-song EP Sing Sad Songs. It’s a charming little disc of music in the style of George and Tammy or Dolly and Porter.

The Lovers sometimes play as a duet and sometimes as a full six-piece. They’re mostly in band mode here, complete with a lead Telecaster, pedal steel, upright bass and drums, plus the smooth fiddle of Black Prairie’s Annalisa Tornfelt.

The EP is bookended by hardcore honky-tonk; first the chugging shuffle of “San Andreas” which features Rusty Blake’s pedal steel and sets the vocals back a bit in the mix with lots of Sun Studios-style echo; and closing with the rockabilly duet of “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Pal.” In between are a couple of songs with Leslie singing lead in her soulful soprano — the slow sad waltz of “Lights of Anita” to which Tornfelt’s moaning fiddle adds lots of color and Pete adds harmony on the final chorus; and the straight-ahead honky-tonk of “Angel Of Sunrise,” with plenty of twang from Ian Miller’s Tele and Blake’s steel, and Marko Markoc’s walking bass driving the rhythm. And there’s the slow barroom ballad “Still Missing You” with Pete and Leslie trading leads on the verses, and the Gram Parsons-style shuffle “No Songs Came By Today.” I hadn’t noticed before how close Pete’s voice is in timbre to Gram’s — see what you think on this lovely video. While you’re there you can also watch them singing “Walkin’ The Floor” at Mississippi Studios in Portland September 1, 2014, the show that I saw when they opened for Zoe Muth.

Sing Sad Songs fulfills the mission of an EP, which is to leave you wanting more. Check out the live dates on The Earnest Lovers’ website and catch them live if you get the chance.

(Elko, 2015)

Harry Long, The Waltons Guide to Irish Music

imageThe subtitle of this book is A Comprehensive A-Z Guide to Irish and Celtic Music in All Its Forms and for once this is an accurate statement. It is indeed an indispensable guide to Irish music in all its varied facets. So let’s look at this wonderful book.

After a useful set of acknowledgements Long starts off with an introduction explaining how the guide was put together touching on the long time it took to finally get finished, a decade, the methodology used in putting it together, on growing up in the trad music science and even why bands such as the Afro-Celts, Horslips and Moving Hearts are important to trad Irish music even though most fans of this music will sniff loudly that that ain’t so.

It’s not a book that most of us will read from cover to cover, so I decided to look specific bands. Let’s see the Bothy Band is here as is (naturally) Chieftains, Clannad, Moving a Hearts, Oisin, Planxty, Skara Brae and even obscure bands such as Scullion. Naturally you’ll find individuals such as Phil Coulter, Frank Givin, Christy Moore and Michael and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill.

Instruments are not neglected either with (to name but a few) the accordion, fiddle, flute and whistle covered as is the bodhran, an instrument often derided in trad session circles. And yes, there’s a very nice look at sessions in this guide.

(You might ask why bodhrans are derided; you’d know if you ever encountered one of the prats who too often show up to play them in a session. It can be a terrible sight. And sound.)

Regional styles are covered, as musical styles differ widely from county to county and even within counties. Just look at the entry on Doolin, an area on the West coast of Co. Clare for how detailed Long is in describing these styles.

One last note: the entry on Uilleann pipes is particularly worth taking the time for you to read as it’s one of the best looks at this instrument I’ve read.

Oh and do read the entry on Waltons, Ireland’s best-known music company.

(Waltons, 2005)

Why Contradances?

I was asked the other day why we had contradances here and not some manner of English or Scottish folk dances. I had no idea why this was so, so I asked our Librarian if he knew. He didn’t know why so he said he’d read the Estate Journals and see what might us give a clue.

It says something that I assumed that they were just the commonplace folk dance in Scotland, but then I’ve never called for any dances except those here. Here’s Iain’s explanation.

Summer Queen S. J. Tucker on Books and Reading

What was the first book that you remember reading?

My middle name is Jane. My mother gave it to me in honor of my great aunt Jane, whom I remember from my childhood as the beautiful redheaded relative from Louisiana who always brought me new books. I still have a gorgeous, hardback illustrated collection of Greek myths that Jane brought to me when I was six or eight years old, called The Golden Fleece. That anthology was my first exposure to the Greek and Roman myths, and I still have it in my collection. In fact, that book was probably what kicked off my lifelong love of mythology and folklore. I was always encouraged to read by my family — you should see the teeming bookshelves my father built into the wall of our living room in the house where I grew up. We’re all quite bookish.

And what were your best beloved books as a child?

Mom and I would take turns reading to each other a lot, and later, I’d read to my father as he worked in his wood shop. I remember loving The Muppet Show Book, of course, Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear, and a little later, anything by Roald Dahl — most especially The BFG (the Big Friendly Giant). Dr. Seuss was also a staple in my book diet, and Shel Silverstein joined the hoard when I started grade school. I remember doing an illustrated book report on one of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books at age ten.

Which books would you now recommend that young children read?

Hands down, I believe that Catherynne M. Valente’s new Fairyland series is a must, whether children read it for themselves or have it read aloud to them by a loved one. Those novels are smart, funny as hell, and filled with magic, quests, hard choices, and other necessary ingredients for a balanced book diet.

Segueing from that, let’s talk about your children’s book, Rabbit’s Song. What was your inspiration to write this charming tale?

Rabbit’s Song is a collaboration with one of my teachers, the late Trudy Herring (who was, herself, the inspiration for my song, “In the House of Mama Dragon”) and illustrator W. Lyon Martin. Trudy wrote the original “Rabbit’s Song” poem, which she then gave to me to edit into lyrics and a song. Lyon then took the initiative to illustrate what would become the children’s book, and I love the watercolor work that she did so much. Truthfully, I wasn’t sold on the rabbit himself/herself, until she showed me that s/he was a green rabbit! I’m not sure why that made him/her/them absolutely perfect in my mind, but it did. Trudy’s original poem came out of a challenge that I gave her in trade for my music one day: come up a story or a poem about a rabbit, who pretends to be a crow, but wants to be a raven. That concept was originally inspired by my long-time friend Kevin K. Wiley, and it definitely suits him! “Rabbit’s Song” is the result of the second piece Trudy wrote along the lines of that animal-story prompt. The other story she came up with remains unpublished, but I have been known to tell it around the fire from time to time in fond memory of Trud.

Charles Stross, The Annihilation Score

Consider the matter of an antique violin, one of a number constructed by a man called Erich Zan, and made of human bone taken from multiple live donors. Violins which are solely intended to produce music capable of murdering demons. The problem is that a demented soul lives within this particular violin and it thrives on eating the souls of others, and it’s not fussy.

Dominique O’Brien (her friends call her Mo), is the keeper of this demonic instrument. It invades her dreams and wants the soul of her colleagues and that of  her husband, Bob Howard, who’s been forced to move out lest someone dies. And despite Mo’s skill as a world class violinist, the possessed violin will not be controlled.

Cover of Charles Stross The Annihilations ScoreAhhh but there’s a lot more to this story than merely that interesting morsel. The Annihilation Score, the latest entry in Charlie Stross’ ongoing series The Laundry Files, details the fight by a British secret agency (the Laundry) against supernatural forces from beyond this Universe that intend to, well, destroy reality as we know it. Flesh eating unicorns, vampires, evil demon possessed felines — all are a result of these forces leaking into our Universe.  Previous novels have featured Mo’s husband Bob Howard as the protagonist, but The Annihilation Files tells Mo’s story.

Mo has been fast-tracked by senior Laundry staff and is now in charge of a new unit to recruit super powered beings into that unit to assist the British government in duties ranging from handling riots to preventing much worse things from happening. Seconded to Mo’s unit, the Transhuman Policy Coordination Unit, are two, errr, not quite human women. One is a vampire, one is a deep sea dweller (complete with mermaid tail). Both are perfect for this unit and it takes Mo just a short while to realize that.

I usually don’t refer to other reviews of a work but the pure venom of some male reviewers towards Mo as the narrator is disturbing. The reviewers very obviously expected Bob to be the narrator and deeply resent Mo being in that role. Personally I thought that this was the best entry in the series in some time. I’ve barely touched upon the story here which moves between Mo’s private life, her interactions with the cursed violin and the politics within both The Laundry and the Met (Metropolitan Police) which is fascinating.

Oh and wait until you reach the part that describes their unique fast response vehicle.

You needn’t have read the previous five novels to read and enjoy this spectacular novel, but I suggest that you read the previous works, novels and novellas alike, as you’ll really like them.

(Ace Books, 2015)

[Editor’s Note: Do check out GMR’s reviews of Stross’s previous Laundry Files entries The Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue, The Fuller Memorandum, The Apocalypse Codex, The Rhesus Chart (a review of the audiobook) and Equoid. Charles Stross has a website and on it he includes a helpful list of his Laundry Files fiction (scroll down to the appropriate section).]