And when I feel alone, like no one understands what I’m going through, I remember my friends who get it. I never thought I’d be able to do any of this stuff, but I can. Anyone can wear the mask. You could wear the mask. If you didn’t know that before, I hope you do now. Because I’m Spider-Man. And I’m not the only one. Not by a long shot.— Miles Morales in Spider- Man: Into the Spider-Verse
So you want to try something different this afternoon from the Green Man Pub stock? You about Glen Kennebragh single malt whisky? It’s quite good but it‘ll cost you deep in the pocket as it’s a thousand pound bottle which is why I keep it on that recessed shelf. So that’s sixty pounds if you’re up for it but I do pour a generous dram.
So may I get you a copy of Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit: In Search of The Perfect Dram to read? It’s a popular around here for the obvious reasons. And as Banks says in the book, “After doing extensive research, I can definitely tell you that single malt whiskies are good to drink.”
April starts our book reviews off with a work from Charles de Lint: ‘Part murder mystery, part horror story, Mulengro is a de Lint urban fantasy of a different sort. Set in and around modern day Ottawa, the novel is, above all else, a study in colliding cultures, namely those of Rom and Gaje (all that is not Rom), that which is resilient yet transitory and that which is possessive.’
Now let’s have a look at Charles de Lint’s Newford Stories: The Crow Girls. Of all the immortal shapeshifting beings 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 equally talented wife, MaryAnn Harris.
Chris looks at deservedly beloved holiday classic: ‘Perhaps it’s the season, or the utter magic of Van Allsburg’s talents, whatever the reasons, the Twentieth Anniversary Edition of The Polar Express appears luxurious and incandescent. If you have (as we do) a beloved dog-eared copy that gets read each Christmas you won’t find any misguided, dramatic, self conscious, ‘gee, how can we repackage this for media savvy kiddies?’ mistakes; just the familiar, wonderful book in a nice matching slipcase. What you will notice most are the deep, rich, exquisitely printed illustrations.’
Gary read recent editions of the first and third novels of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons. It wasn’t the first time he’d read them, but he still found both gripping, as he says in his dual review.
He looks at another novel in the series: ‘As with all of Bank’s Culture novels, Surface Detail is richly imagined in addition to being intricately plotted. The characters’ actions sometimes surprise but never seem out of character. The settings are minutely described, and in such a way that I can almost always them see in my mind’s eye. There was a short section somewhere past the midpoint where I felt that the plot got bogged down for a while; other than that, I could hardly turn its nearly 650 pages fast enough.’
Gary also reviews a book of literary criticism about the Culture series. He says Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series ‘is valuable reading for anyone who wants to move into a deeper understanding of what that series is really about, where it stands in the history of SF and literature, and why it’s important.’
Grey looks at a seasonal work from Wendy Froud and Terri Windling: ‘The faery court of Old Oak Wood was not the largest in the British Isles, but it was the oldest, steeped in elfin history and tradition. Ruled by Titania and Oberon, those celebrated lovers of story and song, the wood was a misty, mossy place hidden deep in the hills of Dartmoor. The court maidens of Old Oak Wood were said to be the most beautiful, its dancers lightest on their feet, its flying faeries faster than the wind. Its wizards and its warriors were famed throughout the faery realm. But young Sneezle was none of these things; he was just a humble tree root faery who lived in a small round house at the very bottom of Greenmoss Glen — The Winter Child’
Steampunk set in the Victorian Era is quite the rage these days (even if much of it is shite), so it’s apt that Kelly has a review of the following work: ‘To the casual reader or observer, it sometimes may seem that the twentieth century was the time of real blossoming in terms of the Fantastic in literature: after all, that’s when science fiction really came into its own, and when a certain Don of Oxford penned a tale about hobbits and gold rings. But the more rigorous student of the Fantastic knows that Fantasy, as well as those tropes that eventually spun away to become science fiction, are far older than just a hundred years. The literature of the fantastic stretches back as far as Homer, after all, and likely even before that. The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, a long-gestating labor of love by Jess Nevins, focuses on the Fantastic of the Victorian era.’
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.’
It’s the time of year when we look back over the year (or years) past, and Robert came up with a series that has become a contemporary classic: Glen Cook’s Annals of the Black Company, recently (well, fairly recently) reissued in a set of omnibus editions. Start with The Chronicles of the Black Company: ‘We all have our personal lists, individual counterparts to those periodic lists of “most important,” “best,” or whatever the accolade of the moment might be. I have a personal list of “best fantasy series” that includes some works that might not be “great,” but several that I think arguably are. In the realm of modern heroic fantasy, in particular, I think anyone would be hard put to protest the inclusion of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Fritz Leiber’s tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Michael Moorock’s great cycle of stories of The Eternal Champion, and Glen Cook’s Black Company.’
Warner has a historical mystery for us: ‘Overall Lindsey Davis’ A Comedy of Terrors is excellent. It features a number of interesting characters, a twisted mystery, and a wonderful setting. While it does not add too many elements to the Flavia Alba Roman Empire series, it does a fine job of illustrating a new status quo. Recommended to those looking for a female led historical mystery.’
He says that ‘Cody Goodfellow & Joseph S. Pulver Sr.’s New Maps of Dream is an anthology that also serves as a love letter to the Deamlands stories of H.P. Lovecraft and others. Filled with carefully chosen stories themed after dreams and a special reality in them, this is a collection in which even the elements which are predictable are exquisitely crafted.’
Up for some Holmes? Warner starts off with Sherlock Holmes’ A Case of Royal Blackmail, a novel about the great detective by Ian Strathcarron. ‘Serving as a prequel of sorts, the book deals with the romantic affairs frequently conducted by Edward the VII, nicknamed “Bertie.” ‘
Befitting the time of year, we asked Gwyneth what her favorite winter comfort food was and here’s the lead-in to her long and delightful answer: ‘Chestnuts, I’m obsessed with chestnuts at Christmas. The obsession dates back to childhood, when chestnuts roasted over the coals on a fire-shovel were a winter treat, back in the primitiive and labour intensive days when my parents’ house was heated by an Aga (solid fuel range) in the kitchen, and coal/wood fires elsewhere. And marrons glacees were the ultimate in sophistication. . . until I finally tried them, and wondered what the fuss was about. (I’m sure they’re very nourishing, by the way) Now I live in Sussex, I expect to forage a kilo or so of sweet chestnuts in October or November. After that it’s hit or miss. One year I slung them in the freezer wet and still in the shell & they defrosted as mush. Another year I left them in a copper bowl in a corner they went mouldy & the bowl suffered too. The supermarket then provides, boring!’
Cat looks at a film that he wasn’t sure about: ‘Marvel’s animation has in contrast to that of DC generally sucked. It’s been weak, both in overall design and in actually carrying the story. It often looks awful and feels dated. DC live films may be a mess but their animation efforts are usually second to none. However Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse had been getting reviews that said its story was great and that its animation was stellar, so I figured I’d give it a go.’ Did he like it? Oh yes!
Michael looks at two Spider-Man films. Of the first, he notes: ‘Spider-Man reinvents the classic comic book character for the big screen, remaining as faithful as possible to the source material. We follow the evolution and growth of Peter Parker from tormented geek to daring hero. All the classic elements are in here.’ And he follows up with Spider-Man 2.
And Robert takes a look at another version of the Spider-Man story: ‘So I had this coupon from Best Buy that allowed me to pick up a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man for half price. Another one of those films I’d heard of but didn’t really know much about, except that 1) it’s about Spider-Man, a character who has started to intrigue me, and 2) superhero.’
Of Jason Latour’s Spider-Gwen, Volume 0: Most Wanted Cat says: ‘Please note that I’ve said little about the story here. That’s quite deliberate as I want you to have the fun of discovering just how great a story Latour has written. It’s certainly one of the better uses of the Spider mythos I’ve seen. I’m going to have to read the rest of the story of Gwen Stacy of Earth-65, drummer in the Mary Janes when she’s not keeping the Multiverse safe from harm.’
Gary notes that jazz bassist Christian McBride has played an annual December residency at the storied Village Vanguard for many years. He’s just released a CD recorded there during one such residency in 2014 with his quintet Inside Straight, whose members play vibraphone, saxophone, piano and drums in addition to McBride on bass. ‘If you enjoy modern hard bop type jazz like I do, you’re in for a treat with this superb set by Christian McBride & Inside Straight.’
In the wake of the sad news of the passing of Michael Nesmith last week, we’re re-running Gary’s recent review of Nesmith’s three albums that he made with the First National Band just a little more than 50 years ago: Magnetic South, Loose Salute, and Nevada Fighter. Rest in peace, Papa Nez.
We’ve covered a lot of winter holiday music over the years, so we pulled a few from the archives for your enjoyment this time:
David had very high praise for the first winter holiday release by the archival label Dust-to-Digital. ‘There are some Christmas albums that can be played non-stop throughout the Christmas season — favourite seasonal songs by your favourite singers. … 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 was unexpectedly pleased with The Jethro Tull Christmas Album: ‘The songs are, for the most part, original pieces which carry a traditional framework, and offer lyrics which comment on the realities of modern life, and how our expectations for the Christmas season might be somewhat skewed… The sound is beautiful, the mood seasonal, and the message timely.’
He also rather liked their benefit release for the holiday season, Merry Christmas from Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull. It’s a short three song CD to raise funds for an organization called Wild About Cats, and the music is lovely, he says: ‘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!’
Kim reviews a mixed bag of Christmas-themed CDs, and she likes all of them! ‘Bringing out the holiday music is as much a part of the ritual as baking cookies, pounding out some carols on the family piano, and wrapping presents. These are the types of discs that get played year after year, or discarded if they don’t measure up.’ You should proceed to her omnibus review of Ensemble Galilei’s A Winter’s Night, St. Agnes Fountain’s Acoustic Carols for Christmas, and Comfort & Joy, and O Christmas Tree: A Bluegrass Collection for the Holidays from our good friends at Rounder.
Peter had a couple of minor quibbles about Broceliande’s Sir Christmas, by a folk group based in Southern California. ‘If, after listening to the album, you thought the band has been classically trained, you would be one half right. The tempo, playing and singing are absolutely note perfect. In fact for some of the folk music buffs it might be just a little clinical, but it was okay by me, and it is pleasant enough. It was, however, just a little strange to hear the song “Gloucester Wassail” sung in a mid-Atlantic accent instead of a Gloucestershire dialect.’
So our What Nots this edition are all Spider-being figures, all reviewed by Cat.
First up is a review of the masked Funko Rock Candy Spider-Gwen figure, out of the many figures in the Rock Candy line of Marvel characters. He says that ‘she was more than a bit difficult to find, as she was a Hot Topic exclusive but she had long since disappeared from those stores by the time I managed to track her down some months later. The non-masked version showing Gwen Stacy with blonde hair was available online just about everywhere — at the original price.‘
He purchased another Spider-Gwen, to wit the Marvel Femme Fatales Spider-Gwen Statue, he ‘went shopping for a decent representation of Spider-Gwen after repeated watchings of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse while I had my first of two lengthy stays in-hospital for treatment of a staphylococcal infection. She was definitely a highlight of the film — tough, intelligent and a match in every way for the Spider-Man of that universe, Miles Morales. Surprisingly there were very few available then, several years back, though there are many more now. Or rather there were lots sans her hood showing the face of Gwen Stacy.‘
The Miles Morales Spider-Man figure. is officially known as the Kotobukiya Marvel Ultimate Spider-Man Artfx+ Statue. a mouthful indeed. Ccat says ‘So I went hunting on the internet for a good Miles Morales Spider-Man figure. I liked that particular Spider-Man after seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse while I was in-hospital being treated for a staph infection that required not only that I have bone surgery but that I spend forty two days there having antibiotics three times a day.’
Our musical coda befits the Winter season that’s here in force now with the first serious snow storm arriving last week. ‘Mojas Katrin’ is from Mari Boine Persen‘s Schauburg, Bremen, Germany performance of some twenty five years ago, though the exact date’s unknown. I think that both her voice and playing feel perfect for this season.