The roasting, the feasting and the hours of horseplay helped to create a special warmth on this cold, hard day. Then the fire was stoked and fed to make a warm place where there could be dancing until darkfall. Martin was very drunk. Rebecca danced alone, wide skirts swirling, hair flowing as the accordion wheezed out its jig, and feet stamped on the stone flags at the edge of the field, where the pit had been dug. — from Robert Holdstock’s Merlin’s Wood
Aren’t you glad that you’re inside while a rather nasty sleet storm is going on? It looks lovely from inside the Pub but Gus’s groundskeeping staff have been cursing fluently in whatever language they prefer – including ancient Celtic in the case of Cerridwen, one of my Pub staff who’s lending a hand – as the sleet is a wet, heavy one that needs shaking off fruit trees and such. They come in every so often to change clothes, warm up, get a another flask of coffee and something to eat before heading back out.
So I’m in our Pub, iPad in hand, asking Cat and Gary what they’ve got for this edition, so I can figure what else they have to go in it. Mind, none of us are working at it very hard as the Neverending Session is playing Swedish trad music, the fire’s roaring and Finch’s giving generous pours of our favorite libations…
Let’s start off the book reviews this time with a look at Charles de Lint’s Newford Stories: The Crow Girls. Of all the immortal shapeshifting being that inhabit the Newford stories, the most charming at least for me are Maida and Zia, the two crow girls, who look like pinkish teenagers all in black naturally. After you read Cat’s review, you can experience them first hand in A Crow Girls Christmas written by (obviously) Charles de Lint and charmingly illustrated by his wife, MaryAnn Harris.
He also offers us a review of one of his yearly readings: ‘Jane Yolen has set The Wild Hunt in the dead of winter, a winter where the weather is very, very bad — as bad as it will be at Ragnarok itself. The story told here is that Herne the Hunter, He Who is The Lord of Winter, is battling… a cat… a rather small cat at that. Ahhh, but not just any cat.’
Eric has a cozy of sorts for us: ‘Adding a new dimension to a real figure adds a kick to historical fiction. The key is to cast the person plausibly, if the historical feel of the fiction is to be kept. The role doesn’t have to be something that the person actually would have done, just something that the character can fall naturally into as the book progresses. In The Queene’s Christmas, Karen Harper strives to graft the role of detective onto the Queen. Somewhat difficult to swallow at times, but the overall effort is a good one.’
Gary liked Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace even better than its prequel, A Memory Called Empire, which he reviewed last time. ‘With her first two novels, Arkady Martine has emerged as the author of some of the best military/political science fiction of the era. Her memorable and not always likable characters capture and hold our imaginations as they navigate a host of big meaning-of-life questions in life-or-death situations. This is space opera for the ages. I have high expectations and many questions that I hope are met in the next installment. Like, I wonder if I’m right about the kittens?’
Lis has another review of a Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London, this time Broken Homes, number four in this series: ‘A dead woman with no ID, her face shot off, and DNA that appears to come from what Peter, Nightingale, and the team refer to as “The Strip Club of Dr. Moreau.” A city planner who turns around to go back down to the underground tracks, and inexplicably appears to commit suicide. A burglar found dead, burned from the inside. A stolen grimoire of industrial magic, which is traced back to a deceased crazy architect who built the SkyGardens council housing estate, where very odd things seem to be happening. Is Peter headed for another confrontation with the Faceless Man?’
A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files got this note from Richard: ‘Generally speaking, the supernatural western rests roughly at the heart of Joe Lansdale’s run on Jonah Hex. You can shift it a little toward Briscoe County here, a little toward the Deadlands RPG there, but really, the metaphor’s pretty solidly set. Until, of course, something comes along like Gemma Files’ A Book of Tongues, which takes the traditional supernatural western, sizes it up, and then calmly shoots it in the back of the head.’
Robert brings us a look back at early — well, fairly early — Charles de Lint, with reviews of two of his novels set in and around Tamson House. First is Moonheart: ‘Moonheart may very well be the first novel by Charles de Lint that I ever read. I can’t really say for sure — it’s been awhile. It certainly is one that I reread periodically, a fixture on my “reread often” list. It contains, in an early form, all the magic that keeps us coming back to de Lint.’
And next Robert has Spiritwalk: ‘Spiritwalk is a loose sequel to Moonheart, a series of related tales, again centering around Tamson House and including many of the same characters. In fact, the House is even more important as a Place in this group of stories.’
Warner has a healthy assortment today. First is Joanna Schaffhausen’s Long Gone, which questions the problems a cop faces after turning in another.
John Langan’s Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies brings forward horror with plenty of dark looks at myths, folklore, and society.
Anthony Horowitz’s The Twist of a Knife represents a rarity where the author puts himself on suspicion of murder.
Warner sees Amanda Kool’s Resembling Lepus as “a startlingly new mystery sci fi-novel” featuring a death at it’s core.
A return to the British Library Crime Classics comes in the form of Anthony Berkeley’s Murder in the Basement.
Finally a “basic setup of a graduate student dealing with past trauma” is is taken an interesting directions by Isaac Fellman in The Two Doctors Górski.
Speaking of The Hobbit, Robert reviewed Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: ‘I saw Peter Jackson’s first installment on his trilogy of The Hobbit twice, and, strangely enough, An Unexpected Journey was better the second time. Fortunately, I haven’t read The Hobbit in years, so I wasn’t having to pull myself back from what should have happened to what was actually happening.’ He later saw the second Hobbit film: ‘Inevitably, I found myself catching the first local showing of Peter Jackson’s latest entry into his J. R. R. Tolkien sweepstakes, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. It was better than I expected.’
Naturally we also reviewed The Lord of The Rings films that actually preceded those films. Grey reviewed all three and it’s best that I not spoil the wonderful treat that you’ve got waiting for in reading her illuminating reviews, so I’m just going to send you to her The Fellowship of Ring review here, The Two Towers review here and The Return of The King review thisaway. Suffice it to say that she wasn’t disappointed in any of them!
We asked a number of folk we know this question: Is it a bowl of your mother’s fish chowder? Or a warm doughnut dusted with powdered sugar? Comfort food is as individual as each of us. So here is Deborah Grabien‘s reply:
Well, it’s an odd thing: as a cook, I think all food is comfort food.
No, I’m not being difficult. It’s just that I love to cook, and I don’t cook anything I don’t also love to eat, unless I’m cooking for a large crowd. The whole thing about food is that — like air and water — it’s one of the great imperatives. Sex is brilliant, but you can go without it your entire life with no ill effects, and in fact, many do. Try going without food, air or water, though, and you’re in serious trouble.
We seem to be in an age when everything is based on competition. I used to watch the Food Network for a chance at recipes I didn’t have, ideas, fusion for things I hadn’t come across. Now it’s all about pitting cooks against each other. And that, for me, is 180 degrees from what cookery is supposed to be for. I can’t watch it anymore. “Challenge” this, “Worst” that, “Best” whatever. What are these people talking about? It’s food.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a big pot of bolognese bubbling away on the 150 BTU simmer burner, or a bowl of warm peas straight from the garden drizzled with butter and sea salt, or a slab of cinnamon savarin, or fresh pineapple carved off the heart and chilled in its own juice. A bowl of cereal, a cup of cocoa, an apple, a burrito: it’s all comfort food. Why would I cook it, or eat it, if it did anything other than please me?
David got endless amusement from the ongoing series of The Complete Peanuts. We’re featuring his reviews of Volumes 1-3, Volume 4, and Volume 5. ‘Designed by Canadian cartoonist Seth, the books have a distinctive look and appropriate heft, as though you are holding something important in your hands. I first saw the books last summer in New York City. We stayed in a hotel just off Broadway, and out the back door was a huge comic book store. I spent many free moments browsing through the racks in Jim Hanley’s Universe. Then I saw Volume 1 of The Complete Peanuts. It was signed by designer Seth, and featured a drawing of one of his own characters (in Shulz’s style) chasing Charlie Brown and volunteering to “be his friend.” I bought it on the spot.’
Gary has some new winter holiday music from Norway, Trygve Seim and Andreas Utnem’s Christmas Songs. ‘By their nature most of these tunes are quite familiar to most of us, but if you go just a little below the surface of the arrangements on Christmas Songs you’ll hear something different. Trygve Seim and Andreas Utnem have given us the gift of an album that asks us to reimagine these old chestnuts along with them.’
‘I like Melissa Carper’s music a lot,’ Gary says in his review of her solo album Ramblin’ Soul. ‘She brings a lot to the table – or to the stage or studio, as it were – including her deft rhythmic sense on the upright bass, a unique vocal style and sound, a great way with lyrics that encompasses a whole range of emotions from joyful to utterly depressed, sometimes within the same song, and a deep familiarity with classic country music that enables her to present those lyrics in an appropriate setting.’
‘Right out of the gate you know there’s something different going on with Laszlo Gardony’s Close Connection,’ Gary says in his next review. ‘Although this, his 14th leader date, features the Hungarian born pianist and composer with his longtime trio mates, bassist John Lockwood and drummer Yoron Israel, the music they’re playing is anything but straight ahead piano jazz. The first two cuts, “Irrepressible” and “Strong Minds,” introduce the two seemingly disparate influences that underpin this album: Hungarian folk music on the former and progressive rock on the latter.’
Gary remains a big fan of the “ambient country” music of SUSS. He reviews a new six-song EP from this New York trio called Winter Was Hard, which is the third side of a forthcoming vinyl double LP called simply SUSS. ‘After the shimmering Southwestern soundscapes of Night Suite and Heat Haze, Bob Holmes, Pat Irwin and Jonathan Gregg take us into chillier territory on Winter Was Hard. And back out again.’
Finally, Gary reviews a short set of Nordic folk-rock, Gangar’s Tre Danser. ‘If you’ve been wishing for some heavy metal arrangements of Nordic folk tunes, St. Nicholas has heard you and answered with this fresh new recording. Tre Danser is the first release from the Norwegian folk-rockers Gangar, a brief three-song EP that has quite an impact for such a short record. They’ve been playing as a band for a couple of years with popular live shows, combining Norwegian folk songs and tunes with heavy metal inspired by the likes of Meshuggah, Hoven Droven, AC/DC, and Gåte.
Let’s see what we have in the Archives that might fit with the approaching holidays …
Big Earl had feelings about two releases from the U.K. band The Ukrainians: ‘I mean, if I ever catch these guys live, I’m starting the Pit; to hell with the violin and mandolin flourishes! This is frankly the direction I wish the Pogues had taken: the harder, rougher road. Let’s face it, much northern European traditional dance music wasn’t meant to be played pretty and delicate. These traditions have always meant to allow the listener to become dervish-like, flailing one’s way towards the gods and clan, not sitting at the side and nodding along politely.’
David had high praise for a holiday release from the good folks at the archival label Dust-to-Digital, Where Will You Be Christmas Day? ‘There are some Christmas albums that can be played non-stop throughout the Christmas season — favourite seasonal songs by your favourite singers. James Taylor recorded one last Christmas that will stay on holiday playlists for years. But every once in a while a record comes along that transcends the season and provides good listening, solid musical value, and even (dare I say it) historical importance to be played outside the month of December. Where Will You Be Christmas Day? is one of those recordings.’
David also reviewed a wee EP of holiday songs, Merry Christmas from Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull. ‘It’s all very warm and cozy. People outside the office called in, “Dave! You’re putting us in the Christmas spirit!” Oh! Wouldn’t want to do that . . . before you know it I’ll be surrounded by tinsel and lights!’
Jack covered three Nordic releases with some themes and sounds in common, Lena Willemark’s När som gräset det vajar, Ale Möller Band’s Bodjal, and Maria Kalaniemi Trio’s Tokyo Concert. He especially liked the one by Lena Willemark. ‘I’ve heard more Nordic neo-traditional CDs than I care to think of, and I can say that this is one of the very best I’ve heard!’
Jayme enjoyed Out of Time, a release from Wyndnwyre, a Texas band that played ancient music. ‘There’s not much in the way of medieval music these folks can’t handle. And what they handle, they handle well. That sound has made them a popular headliner at various Houston pubs and the charming “Dickens on the Strand” held on Galveston Island each December. In the controlled atmosphere of a recording studio, that talent shines all the more brightly.’
Judith reviewed Canadian singer songwriter Aengus Finnan’s North Wind. ‘Winner of the 2002 Kerrville New Folk Songwriting Award, Finnan’s song writing is excellent, not so much because of the words he uses, but because of the way they interact with the melody, the acoustic arrangements, and his own smooth voice. More interesting, though, is the sequencing of tracks; it is rare to hear an album like this where with each track you ask “What’s next?” ‘
Peter had high praise for the live album Once Upon A Winter’s Night by Yardarm Offa. ‘The quality of the recording is excellent; indeed if not for the audience singing the choruses, it would be hard to distinguish it from a studio recording. But the band singing live and responding to the reaction and mood of the audience as they are enjoying the songs and joining in, is a joy to behold. It lifts the band, and you get that extra sparkle in the performance that is impossible to recreate in a cold studio recording. This is true folk music, as it should be, and what you hear in a real folk club.’
And Peter learned something when he reviewed Robin Bullock, Al Petteway and Amy White’s A Midnight Clear, even though he reviewed it six months early! ‘I don’t think I had realised before researching this album how different Christmas is on the two sides of the Atlantic, and indeed elsewhere around the world. In the U.K., it is perceived as a celebration (in the eyes of the Church) in the Americas it is a holiday, although we both have the same theme.’
Our What Not caused Reynard to ponder something in the Nibbling Mouse Folkmnis puppet: “I’ve no idea where it’s been since it came in for review nearly twenty years ago, nor do I know how it ended up in the room off the Estate Kitchen that houses the centuries-old collection of cookbooks, restaurant menus and other culinary-related material but I just noticed it there, a very adorable white mouse puppet holding a wedge of cheese in its paws. Somebody had placed it in a white teacup on the middle of the large table so I really couldn’t overlook it.”
A couple of well known musicians from the North East of England, Rachel Unthank and Paul Smith, calling themselves Unthank, have released the first two songs off their forthcoming album Nowhere And Everywhere, scheduled for release in February 2023. (Props for the nod to Waterson:Carthy in the name of this duo.) Rachel, of the folk and folk/rock vocal group The Unthanks, and Paul, of the indie rock band Maxïmo Park, will tour the UK and Ireland in March and April 2023.
The album itself will feature a lot of traditional songs, but the first two tracks released are both originals: “The Natural Urge” by Paul and “Seven Tears” by Rachel. The former was part inspired by the bleak World War I art of Paul Nash, and the latter incorporates Northumbrian mythology about selkies.
“The Natural Urge is, ultimately, an anti-war song, but I tried to write something more atmospheric and less obvious than that might imply, Paul says. “The guitar riff reminded me of a folk melody, and the theme also seemed to fit with the tradition of protest.” You can watch it here.
Of her song “Seven Tears,” Rachel says, “I have always loved the songs and ballads about selkies – a seal in the sea that takes off their sealskin and adopts human form on land. “When doing some research about the selkie mythology, I read that if you cried seven tears into the sea, then your selkie lover would come back to you. I also love the Northumbrian word ‘darkening’ which means dusk; that time of night when magic happens, and the time that I once saw a bob of seals off a Northumbrian beach, which inspired me to write this song.”
You can listen to them both here.