So much of who we are is what we remember and retell.
Yes I’m covered with kibbles and bits of straw. It’s the time of year that we make new scarecrows, bodach ròcais in Scots Gaelic, to replace the ones created the previous Autumn, as they only last a single growing season. No, they don’t go out until Spring but the straw’s available now and the Several Annies assist in the creation of them. There’s a minor magic placed upon them to keep the mice from eating them; besides, the Estate cats are very good at keeping the mouse population way down.
Give me a few minutes to get clean clothes on and I’ll serve you. I’ve got a whisky that I think you should try, it’s Toiteach, which is a wonderfully peaty single malt from the Bunnahabhain distillery. Served neat with neither water nor ice is how we do it, as there’s no single malts here that shouldn’t be appreciated that way.
If you’re interested in knowing more about Scots whiskys, take a look at the review by Stephen of the late Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit: In Search of The Perfect Dram as I believe it’s simply the best look at single malts ever done. Banks, of course, is the author of The Culture series and I’ll refer you to Gary’s review of The Hydrogen Sonata for a look at that series.
Cat leads us with alternative history novel, The Peshawar Lancers, in which the British Empire decamps to India: ‘The much more Indian than English culture is a brilliant re-visioning of British history that reads like vintage Poul Anderson, particularly his Dominic Flandry series. It features rugged heroes — male and female — vivid combat scenes, exotic locales, and truly evil villains. Hell, it even has Babbage machines, the great analytical engines that Sir Charles Babbage never built but which also play an important role in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine.’
Speaking of which, Cat follows up with a look at The Difference Engine itself: ‘Steampunk is a relatively recent genre that mixes the image of a cyberpunk dystopia with the technology and culture of the Victorian Empire. I thought it was a fairly common motif, but it appears not to be as I can find very few other novels with this motif. With The Difference Engine, these two leading cyberpunk authors have joined together to produce an alternate history novel.’
Gary reviews The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel’s final book in her Cromwell trilogy. He says he found it ‘nearly as dark and difficult to get through for this reader as it was for Cromwell himself. I mean, okay, I wasn’t dead at the end of it, but I felt wrung out long before the final pages.’
Another novel Gary looks at in this review is set in a richly imagined future India, Ian Mcdonald’s River of Gods. And it’s a bloody good read as well: ‘You can hold whole universes in your hand, between the covers. And as with those old faery tales, you need to pay attention to books like River of Gods. They contain important truths, hidden inside entertaining stories.’
An Ian Macdonald novel garners this comment from Grey: ‘Today, I picked up King of Morning, Queen of Day again just to refresh my memory before writing this review. After all, it doesn’t do to refer to a book’s main character as Jennifer if her name is actually Jessica. But my quick brush-up turned into a day-long marathon of fully-engaged, all-out reading. I’ve been on the edge of my seat, I’ve been moved to tears, I’ve laughed, I’ve marked passages that I want to quote.’
Jack has a look at Warren Dotz, Jack Mingo and George Moyer’s Firecrackers: The Art & History which he says ‘brings the tale of these fiendish devices to life, from their apparent invention in China to their current use in celebrations such as the aforementioned Fourth of July. The first full-color book ever published which includes the art of firecracker labels through the ages, Firecrackers: The Art & History is a major achievement in me opinion.’
Robert brings us the first two novels in Elizabeth Bear’s The Promethean Age. He begins his review of Blood and Iron with some thoughts on where fantasy has gone in recent years: ‘One of the freshest and most interesting developments in fantasy literature over the past decade or two has been the emergence of what I tend to call “contemporary fantasy.” Known also as “urban fantasy” or sometimes “mythic literature,” it combines the trappings and motifs of classic fantasy and sometimes horror with a modern-day, usually urban milieu. It also moves freely into other genres. Call it fantasy’s answer to cyberpunk: it has that kind of fluidity and, more often than not, that kind of hard-edged, dark vision.’
Of the second, Whiskey and Water, he notes: ‘The nice thing about reading the first volume to a really good new fantasy series is that when you reach the end, you know the story’s not over. The nice thing about getting your hands on the second volume is that now the waiting is over.’
Warner starts off with a mystery for us: ‘The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne provides an interesting mystery and characters, and even curious objects. Moments come when characters seem utterly irredeemable, yet the difference in time and their parts in the story easily account for these. Overall, an easy book to recommend to fans of Elsa Gary’s work, and fans of the historical mystery novel in general.’
He has a novel with a fresh take on Arthurian legends: ‘Lavie Tidhar produces perhaps his best novel in By Force Alone. It is a re-interpretation of the Arthurian legend by a man who is not only very familiar with politics but also a massive geek. He produces a rush through of various events, major and minor, putting a new spin on the classic saga which includes swearing, drug dealing, a disturbing Merlin, and the most licentious sexual elements.’
Asher proclaims ‘Here is a tale of human folly — “Whatever the cost, do it”. Of a noble dream – “One land, one king!” Of magic – “Can’t you see all around you the Dragon’s breath?” Of its passing – “There are other worlds. This one is done with me.” And of memory – “For it is the doom of men that they forget.” Excalibur is arguably the most exciting film version of the myth of Arthur to date.’
Grey looks at a Terry Gilliam film: ‘The Fisher King is a modern fairy tale after the pattern of stories by authors of urban fantasy like Charles de Lint. Like de Lint, scriptwriter Richard LaGravenese gives us a story in which an indentured servant and a victim of the urban jungle are redeemed by a traditional quest, by their acceptance of roles which echo some of the deepest archetypes from our collective human myths. In this story, those archetypes are the wounded king and the holy fool. However, we also see that in this redemptive quest, the heroes must play both roles to find their Grail.’
Shall we talk about some rather delicious seafood?
So let’s first sample some of Denise’s commentaries, to wit Aldi’s Hot Smoked Salmon, Bar Harbor All Natural Smoked Wild Kippers and Trader Joe’s Boneless Skinless Mackerel in Sunflower Oil. Oh ymmm!
And now how about something hot and filling for the cold weather we’re having? Jennifer has her Thick Thai-style seafood chowder for a cold day, a fantastic sounding meal indeed! If that’s doesn’t tickle your fancy my I suggest her Quick-n-Dirty Crab ‘n’ Corn Soup instead? Or if you’re really looking to up your cholesterol and have a fancy for south-of-the-border spice hiding under a comfy-cozy layer of cheese and corn mush, try her Spicy cheesy polenta with chorizo.
Robert brings us a look at one of Marvel’s crossover series that turned out much better than the average: ‘Marvel’s crossover series, Civil Wars, has offered up at least one gem: the Young Avengers & Ruanways volume.’
That volume piqued his interest in another series: ‘After reading Civil War: Young Avengers & Runaways, I decided that Young Avengers was one series I definitely wanted to follow up on. It was worth it.’
Alistair has some rather fine Celtic music for us: ‘Bonnie Rideout has been reviewed in these pages before. At that time, reviewer Stephen Hunt described her compilation album Scottish Reflections, her ninth on the Maggie’s Music label, as “brilliantly conceived.” Celtic Circles, issued in 1994 and her second solo recording, illustrates how consistently high her standards of musicianship, research, and arrangement have been from the beginnings of her recording career.’
Ensemble Karot’s Traditional Songs of Armenia, Volume 1 say Big Earl Sellar is ‘ This is a fine disc of vocal music from the middle European East. With great singing and great presentation, Ensemble Karot present their Armenian musical heritage in a wonderful light. Though not entirely spell-binding, this is a decent a cappella disc.’
‘As we all know, 2020 has been a trying year in so many ways, but it has been one of the best years for music in my recent memory,’ Gary says. ‘And Brooklyn Raga Massive’s In D touches me as deeply as anything in this extraordinary music year.’
Gary also reviews Lost Ships, a new offering from Albanian-Swiss singer Elina Duni and British guitarist Rob Luft. ‘It’s great to have a new Elina Duni album as we head into the cold and dark and damp of winter, especially one that gives us such grounded optimism.’
Kim has some some tasty Welsh music for us: ‘Carreg Lafar ‘s second album, Hyn, combines great vocals and tasteful arrangements of Welsh traditional music, along with some nice originals, in a mix that seems slightly medieval and mysterious, while at the same time anchored with contemporary folk sensibilities.’
Lars has some more such music for us: ‘Delyth Jenkins’ album Aros is about as Welsh as an instrumental album can be. She is no newcomer, having played professionally for 25 years. This is her third solo album, with another two recorded with her first group Cromlech and three with her next group Aberjaber.’
Robert, as seems to be a habit with him, takes us somewhat out of our usual musical haunts with a look at a masterpiece of twentieth-century music, namely Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice: ‘Many consider Benjamin Britten the most important British composer since World War II; indeed, some think him the most important since Henry Purcell. Although often thought an uneven composer, most writers in the area concede that his operas Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, and Death in Venice are among the greatest works in twentieth-century British music.’
From there, Robert takes a look at some nineteenth-century romanticism in Jan Vogeler’s The Secrets of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto: ‘Antonín Dvorák began a cello concerto in 1865, but left it, among other reasons because he claimed that the cello was insufficient as a solo instrument. The composer finally wrote a concerto for the cello in 1894, while Director of the National Conservatory in New York. History says that he attended two performances of a cello concerto by a faculty member of the Conservatory and was inspired finally to write one of his own. (The faculty member, by the way, was Victor Herbert.)’
Stephen has some Nordic music music that I think you’ll like: ‘Annbjorg Lien is a Norwegian composer, arranger, instrumentalist, and singer, who occupies an artistic space where clumsy attempts at easy definition are irrelevant. With Baba Yaga, she’s created a music in which traditional fiddle tunes are pop songs, string quartets are folk dancers, electronic rhythms are an element of symphonic composition and the sound of human breathing is both rhythm and melody.’
Vonnie finishes out our music with a look at a darkly tinged album: ‘An Echo of Hooves has June Tabor returning to what, in my mind, she does best, delivering ballads or songs that tell a tale. For this she has chosen eleven Medieval ballads. Some of them are very well-known, like “The Cruel Mother,” “Hughie Graeme,” “Sir Patrick Spens” and “Bonnie James Campbell”. Others are new to me.’
Our What Not this week are four rodent puppets from Folkmanis. First up is Denise with the Mouse in Pumpkin puppet: ‘All hail the spice! Pumpkin everything is the rule of the day this time of year, and I’m all for it. Give me my pumpkin donuts, pumpkin pies,spicy roasted pumpkin, and pumpkin crumble. And okay, a PSL or two while we’re at it, though I’m more a Chestnut Praline Latte gal myself. So when Folkmanis decided to indulge my love of the orange squash, my grabby hands eagerly shot out. And I’ve been snuggling with this adorable puppet ever since.’
Our next one this outing is the Folkmanis Mouse with Cheese puppet that got overlooked when it came in so Reynard gives it a review now: ‘I’ve no idea when it came in for review, 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 a very adorable white mouse puppet holding a wedge of cheese in its paws there. Somebody had placed it in a white teacup on the middle of the large table so I really couldn’t overlook it. ’
Next is one reviewed by Robert: ‘I seem to have another Folkmanis puppet lurking around, this one the Rat In a Tin Can. The Folkmanis website describes him as being ready for a playful picnic (note the napkin in one paw). However, it seemed to me that he might just as easily be a waiter in an upscale rat restaurant: his black-and-white pattern might almost be taken for formal wear.’
He finishes off our reviews with a succinct note on this puppet: ‘The entry for the Mini Brown Mouse Finger Puppet at Folkmanis’ website reads: “The Folkmanis Mini Brown Mouse finger puppet is a pocket pet perfect to surprise your unsuspecting friends.” I see it.’
Our Coda is ‘The Sleeping Warrior’ by the Scottish sort of trad group Iron Horse which was recorded on a April evening twenty two years ago at the Gosport Easter. I think it captures the band at its very best. If you want a second tune by them, give a listen to ‘Black Crows and Ravens’ which was recorded at the same festival.