So when a body was found in her party suite, the case came to me. Folks in fandom call me the Sam Spade of Science Fiction, but I’m actually more like the Nero Wolfe: a man who prefers good food and good conversation, a man who is huge, both in his appetite and in his education. I don’t go out much, except to science fiction conventions (a world in and of themselves) and to dinner with the rare comrade. I surround myself with books, computers, and televisions. I do not have orchids or an Archie Goodwin, but I do possess a sharp eye for detail and a critical understanding of the dark side of human nature. — Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Stomping Mad: A Spade/Paladin Conundrum”
I’m having an afternoon tea right now of smoked lapsang souchong tea and Droste extra dark chocolate pastilles. We eat a lot of chocolate here. We’ve even made a dark chocolate chili-laden smoked chicken noodle soup once or twice. Don’t wrinkle your nose — it actually tasted quite magnificent when served with Guinness extra dark.
I’ve been reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Ten Little Fen: A Spade/Paladin Conundrum, a novel set at an SF Con. A lovely mystery told in the first person narrative. Up to now, the series has been told as short stories, so it’s nice to see the author have the length to allow these characters to develop fully. All of the stories are available digitally.
Cat has high praise for Neal Asher’s Orbus, a novel in that prolific author’s Spatterjay series. ‘This ain’t state of the art space opera of thirty years ago, or even a decade ago – it’s perhaps the best space opera I’ve ever read, and that’s saying a lot as I’ve read space opera for over thirty years now.’
Craig reviews a book of film criticism, Ronald Schwartz’s Neo-Noir, which covers films in the noir style but made after that genre’s accepted heyday. ‘Beginning with 1960’s Psycho (which appeared only two years after the release of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, widely considered to be the final film noir), Schwartz has done an admirable job of covering the highlights of neo-noir with reviews of what he considers the 32 films most representative of the style.’
Donna found herself fascinated with a book about the making of Persian carpets, Brian Murphy’s oddly titled The Root of Wild Madder. ‘For a reader who, like me, finds Persian carpets and other forms of Persian design appealing, this book offers an introduction to the culture(s) that created them. Murphy tells about his fascination with the carpets and the process by which he overcomes his discomfort at being a Westerner bargaining with carpet dealers in the places he visits. Early on, he becomes interested in learning more about the wild madder plant that is the source of the red color so predominant in many of the classic rug designs. He builds the story around his quest to find carpets made of wool dyed with madder, to observe people working with this and other natural dyes, and to encounter a field of wild madder (rubia tinctorum).’
Gary spent some quality time with a hefty tome, the first of three volumes of a Beatles history by Mark Lewisohn, Tune In: ‘So who can keep up with all the books about The Beatles? Not me, obviously. I’ve been a fan since Beatlemania first broke on these American shores in early 1964, and in my life probably the only thing I’ve done more than read about The Beatles is listen to The Beatles. I’ve been a fan of Mark Lewisohn since I stumbled upon a copy of his first (of many) Beatles reference books, 1988’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions in a used book shop sometime in the ’90s. He’s been writing about the Fabs since the 1970s, and has actually worked for EMI and Apple Corps.’
Grey expressed no remorse when she snagged Firebirds: An Anthology of Original Fantasy and Science Fiction for herself to review rather than forwarding it on to one of our staff writers. ‘This anthology, unlike many if not most anthologies that are published, is made up of entirely new, never before published stories. Completely fresh, still photosynthesizing, text. It makes me drool. And the contributors! Egad!’
Back when we concerned ourselves about the scope of what we reviewed, our reviewer J.J.S. took on one of those tales of all-powerful AIs and alien worlds that are firmly SF but are also in some ways indistinguishable from fantasy, Neal Asher’s and Brass Man. ‘Nevermind the differing explanations, the universe presented here is as far removed from our day-to-day realities as any story of gnomes and werewolves, and there is more than a little overlap into the realm of myth, scientific in origin or no. This is a world of demigods, golems, monsters, sorcerers, dragons, and familiars. Perhaps more importantly, this is a story of grand, sweeping events, and our heroes merely try to stay afloat as they are carried away with the current.’
Jayme had mixed feelings about a book on a topic that was of great interest. ‘In Kokopelli: The Making of an Icon, Ekkehart Malotki sets out to trace the origins of this mythic figure, hunting down hundreds of examples of the New Mexico and Arizona rock art featuring Kokopelli and conducting extensive interviews with Hopi tribe members. The result is an exhaustive, definitive account of the origins and history of the figure. It’s also something of a disappointment. Contrary to the press kit and dust jacket testimonials, this is not a lively read.’
Kestrel took on two weighty tomes of film criticism: The Hollywood Horror Film, 1931-1941: Madness in a Social Landscape, and Caligari’s Heirs: The German Cinema of Fear after 1945. Of the former, she says, ‘Reynold Humphries, a professor of film studies and author of <i>The American Horror Film: An Introduction</i> (2002), uses Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory to examine the political, economic, and social influences of the classic horror film.’ And of the latter, ‘Each of the scholars who contributed to this collection demonstrated knowledge of both academic theory and pop culture resources, including fan communities and online publications. Perhaps it was due to the ways in which these very different domains were combined, but the anthology collectively is a very original work that challenges some of the assumptions about German horror cinema specifically and horror cinema in general.’
Michael reviews the first two books in Ilona Andrews’ urban fantasy series about ‘Kate Daniels, a mercenary who will clean up leftover magical problems as necessary,’ Magic Bites and Magic Burns. The premise? ‘In the semi-near future, Atlanta has become a strange and dangerous place to live. Waves of magic sweep over the world with unpredictable frequency, canceling out all things technological for the length of their duration. The supernatural is in full force during these times, with shapeshifters, mages, vampires, and far stranger things coming out to play.’
Paul‘s review of Tim Powers’ Alternate Routes contends that it provides an uneven but more mainstream fantasy novel, from one of Fantasy’s greatest luminaries.
David reviews The Complete Ritchie Valens, a limited edition DVD that includes both music and a documentary film on DVD about the life and music of Ritchie Valens. ‘All 28 songs, including a couple of demos and alternate versions, every master take ever recorded by Ritchie, each one digitally remastered from the original masters, are here in sparking audio. … The piece de resistance, though, is the video program – a new 95 minute documentary entitled The Ritchie Valens Story: Viva Ritchie! This film includes interviews with family members, musicians and colleagues, rare home movies, rehearsal footage and much, much more.’
Denise has a chocolate with an fiery edge to it: ‘There are lots of tastes that taste great together. Peanut butter and jelly. Buttered popcorn and champagne. (Seriously, try it.) And, of course, chocolate and licorice. But there’s one that doesn’t get enough love here in the States, and that’s chilies and chocolate. But we need to fix that right now. Taza’s Guajillo Chili chocolate is just the thing to make converts out of all chocolate lovers.’
Even though Gary has bad memories of what Ghirardelli Flicks tasted like back in the day, he grew to like this modern-day chocolate bar: Ghirardelli’s Intense Dark Raspberry. ‘First thing to clear up, though, is that “raspberry bits” does not mean “bits of raspberries.” So the first time I tried one of these bars I was a bit put off. The raspberry bits in this bar consist of, according to the ingredients on the package, “sugar, raspberry powder, fructose, natural flavor.” They’re crunchy teeny tiny bits of raspberry flavored candy.’
Robert has a single source chocolate for us: ‘Lolli & Pops Madagascar Sambirano comes in a flat 2-ounce bar, with a lightly incised pattern and company logo on the front, but no scoring deep enough to break the bar into bit-size pieces. It’s certainly worth sampling — if you can find it. Apparently Lolli & Pops, which has been largely a boutique confectioner with outlets in shopping malls, has been forced to closed a number of stores. So, happy hunting.’
David found a lot to like, and it wasn’t all nostalgia, in Charles M. Schulz’s The Complete Peanuts, 1959-1960, part of an ongoing series from Fantagraphics: ‘This is the fifth book so far and we’re up to 1959-60. I was eight years old, and reading the comics for myself, so some of these simple strips are starting to look familiar to me. Of course, many of them have been reprinted in paperbacks or in deluxe versions over and over, but always in “selected” collections. Never before has the collected work of Charles Schulz been made available in this way.’
David came up with something quite different in Laurence Hyde’s Southern Cross. ‘Southern Cross is a novel with no words. Not a graphic novel, as we’ve come to understand them, but a series of 118 wood engravings that when “read” together in sequence tells a story of the atomic bomb tests by the USA in the South Pacific in the days following World War II. There is no text. Once or twice a word appears engraved in the image, but this story is told by images alone. And a powerful story it is.’
Barb reviewed The Rough Guide To The Music Of Russia and found it to her liking. ‘Music from the former land of the Soviet Union is a study in the effects of repression by governments, the tenacity of artists, and the tidal wave of accessible information (especially from the West) on the musical community. Mix all of these elements up in the musical pot and you’re bound to get an incredible array of sounds and styles with sometimes surprising results.’
Next, Barb treats us to an omnibus review of four CDs of Latvian folk music from traditional to modern. ‘Like so many other cultures these days, Latvian music is enjoying the modern age of CDs and the music is reaching beyond their borders, landing in hands like mine. … If you like any kind of European folk music, you will most certainly enjoy music from Latvia.’
Big Earl was favourably impressed with Nohon’s Altai Maktal, a disc of Mongolian vocal music. ‘The voice is the real instrument of Mongolian peoples. While they scratch out a backing on simple lutes, bowed instruments, and flutes, the vocal chords are the measure of true musicianship. Nohon is a master of several different styles of throat singing, able to hit multiple octaves and sing chords. He spends much of the disc singing in a guttural baritone, but suddenly shifts up several octaves when the needs arises.’
Big Earl was a little less enthusiastic about a compilation of World music, Ten Years of Face Music. ‘This compilation comes after the release of their 22nd album, no mean feat for an independent label with such an esoteric roster. Like most compilations, there are high and low points that will differ for every particular listener, but for me, this is more a “what could have been” disc.’
Klezmer music of a modern sort is the focus of The Klezmer Conservatory Band’s Dance Me To The End of Love, according to Brendan. ‘All of the usual forms of klezmer are here: the frenetic freylekhs, the mysterious horas, melancholy waltzes. But rather than coming across as a group of stuffy scholars with the goal of sounding like their great-great-grandparents did, the Klezmer Conservatory Band is seeking to preserve the vitality and spark of old-time klezmer while expanding the repertory of klezmer as a musical form. After all, the title track is in fact a rather sultry love song written by Leonard Cohen.’
Gary found a lot to like in the new album Aboogi from Algerian Touareg band Imarhan. ‘Imarhan’s sound is similar to that of other Tuareg guitar rock bands, with perhaps a bit more of a pop influence and very strong melodic elements in the songs. This album has some very strong songs indeed.’
Gary reviews some Nordic jazz in Helge Lien Trio’s Revisited. The Norwegian pianist has a new drummer and bassist, so the trio re-recorded versions of tunes from the back catalog going back to 2002. ‘This album Revisited was partly recorded in intimate “studio” sessions at the Toyen church in Oslo, and partly live in front of an audience at the Anjazz Festival in October 2020, although there’s no indication which were which, as there’s no crowd noise from the live tracks. What’s it like? Let’s just say I’ve found the first few entries for my 2022 favorite jazz tracks playlist!’
Gary also reviews a new offering from the Castilian folk group Vigüela, A la manera artesana: ‘It kicks off splendidly with the fandango “Estrellitas matutinas” (morning stars), belted out by one of the women over a dense bed of strummed guitars and lutes with maracas and handclaps adding to the pulsing rhythm. … It wraps up more than 80 minutes later with the 10-minute tour de force of “Camina,” a son which features the vocalists showing their stuff punctuated by an expressive flute and some incredible picking and percussion. The vocal performances stand up to the best of European styles like Balkan sevdalinka and Portuguese fado in terms of the way they convey sheer emotion.’
Gary gives the thumbs up to Jake Xerxes Fussell’s Good and Green Again, his fourth album and one that is full of lovely Americana songs and instrumental tunes. ‘Jake played at one of the last live shows I saw pre-pandemic, opening for Daniel Norgren in the fall of 2019. Although I’m crossing my fingers, I doubt that I’ll be able to see him perform on the current tour, but hope to hear him sing some of these special songs next time he comes my way. In the meantime, this will be one of my go-to albums to help me get through what looks to be a third year of sheltering at home.’
An album of Finnish-American harmonica music? We review all kinds of music here, as Judith demonstrates in her review of Les Ross Sr.’s Hulivili Huuliharppu. ‘I’ve been told that Finnish-American music is insular. I’ve been told that Finns may not hug you when you arrive but that they won’t talk about you when you leave, either. In any event, Finnish-American music is not well publicized, but when you do find it, it is a joy and not all that “different” and inaccessible to American tastes. This album in particular is skillfully made and on top of things, and especially warm and a lot of fun.’
Our What Not this outing is a Folkmanis Mouse with Cheese puppet that got overlooked when it came 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.’
Coda: Benedicte Maurseth’s ‘Heilo’: Norwegian Hardanger fiddler Benedicte Maurseth will release Hárr, her third album on Hubro, on Feb. 25. She has released the first single from the album on Bandcamp, and if it’s any indication of what the rest of the album is like (and I’ve no reason to doubt it), this will be a special album indeed. We hear the occasional calls of the shorebird known as the golden plover (and at least one other bird), and in addition to her haunting fiddle we have contributions from bandmates Håkon Mørch Stene on vibraphone, marimba, percussion, and possibly more; and the ubiquitous Mats Eilertsen on double bass and electronics, plus guest Rolf-Erik Nystrøm on saxophones. It’s a mesmerizing performance, and the album, which also includes the recorded voices of Maurseth’s great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, as well as other birds, mammals and even a bumblebee, promises to be just as unpredictable and fascinating.