People need belief systems, Barnaby. Druidism is as good as any.― Caradoc Singer to Dectective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby in the Midsomer Murder’s “The Sleeper Under The Hill” episode
I could smell lamb being braised with garlic, cumin, ginger and butter as I approached our Kitchen. These are quite welcome smells, especially on this raw, snowy afternoon where the temperature is hard pressed to reach minus five degrees (twenty three degrees for you yanks). Of course, right now I’m enjoying winter tomato soup with bulgur, chopped bacon rich with garlic and chilis. And hot buttered rolls too.
The weather here this week on this Scottish estate definitely means that other than the grounds staff that has to go outside, everyone else is staying inside their residences, either in the main estate building or in the old crafter cottages. It is not really cold there’s a constant snow falling and a damn blustery wind to boot, a bad combination indeed. So every surface is treacherous and really not safe to walk on.
I am really not much for video of any kind but I’ve been enjoying the video version of Midsomer Murders, now well twenty years in length. Check our video reviews for a look at this series. I did try reading the source novel by Caroline Graham in the form of the first novel, The Killings at Badger Drift, but it lacked the charm and wit of the video series.
Faith gives us a taste of what a good culinary history can be: ‘Heaven forbid I should ever judge a book by its title, but this one certainly can be. In Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices, Andrew Dalby does exactly what the title says he is going to do. He traces the origins of dozens of spices. Some are used daily all over the world, or in large portions of it. Some are common only in a limited area. A few that were used in the past cannot now be identified. At least one, silphium, is now extinct.’
Back when the Roma were still commonly referred to as Gypsies, Gary reviewed a rollicking book about Gypsy music and musicians, Princes Amongst Men. ‘Journalist Garth Cartwright goes to the heartland of Gypsy music, the Balkans, to meet the legends and present some of the truth behind those legends. Spending apparently much of 2004 travelling through Serbia, Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria, he looked for the heart of Gypsy music in all its messy glory. It’s a long, strange trip to say the least.’
Matthew liked the story well enough in K.J. Parker’s epistolary novella Purple & Black, but found its mechanics unsatisfying. ‘Were this a novel of much greater length, the epistolary format would have worked wonderfully at gradually revealing plot as well as character. As it stands, though, too much characterization is lost because the letters are focused more on the mechanics of the story unfolding … There was too much plot here for a novella (but, oddly enough, not enough for a novel).’
Rebecca liked a retelling of the Arthurian legend that has lots of different twists in it: ‘Fantasy writers have never forgiven the Christian god for supplanting all the pagan gods that came before him. To hear them tell it, the pagan gods weren’t too pleased about it, either. In J. Robert King’s first non-gaming novel Mad Merlin they actually see a way to prevent the Tetragrammaton, as they call Jehovah, from taking over. Young King Arthur proposes to build a city where all gods can live together as peacefully and tolerantly as the human population. The gods can help him build his Camelot, says Merlin … But Merlin is mad.
Next we have a quartet of reviews of Judith Tarr books including two trilogies, for a total of … well, who’s counting?
Elizabeth was not at all pleased with a trio of novels by Judith Tarr, set during the Crusades. ‘While Judith Tarr’s novels Devil’s Bargain, House of War, and Pride of Kings are supposedly historical fantasies dealing with the Crusades, one of the most bloody, savage, and violent episodes of our history, the books are disappointingly tame, boring, naïve, and biased … What these three books share in common is that all three are shamelessly, ridiculously romantic. More often than not, it’s love at first sight, and usually with someone who is twice or half their age.’
Faith looks at a trio of early works by Tarr – The Isle of Glass (1985), The Golden Horn (1985), The Hounds of God– collected in an omnibus edition titled The Hound and the Falcon. ‘Do the fey have souls? Are they creatures of God or of the Devil? Can a member of the fey be a devout Christian, and even a Roman Catholic priest? These are the weighty questions Judith Tarr examines in this trilogy.’
Rebecca had a minor quibble with Tarr’s Kingdom of the Grail, but she mostly enjoyed it. ‘This is an enjoyable book, and well-written, filled with romance and warfare. Roland is a bit too sweet for my taste, too modest and too shy with women. Tarr has a tendency to present her male protagonists as the equivalent of virginal young girls when it comes to sex, which is hard to square with the fact that they are handsome, experienced men. But this is a small complaint. Roland is a wonderful hero, brave, but with moments of cowardice; arrogant without even realizing it; steadfast, though sometimes unforgiving.’
Rebecca was more forgiving of Tarr’s White Mare’s Daughter, set in the late stone age Eurasian Steppes. ‘Misogynists, beware, this book is not for you! It is a celebration of big-breasted, powerful women, wild, proud horses, and what happens when men try to break them. It is a vibrant and fascinating portrayal of the conflict that arises when a male-dominated nomadic culture meets a settled, city-dwelling matriarchy.’
Warner has four reviews for us. The first is Ray Bradbury’s Bradbury Novels and Story Cycles , which Warner says “is easy to recommend to a wide variety of readers. Bradbury was an expert at the short story, and many of the works in this volume include some of his most famed tales. There is slice of life, crime, magic, sci-fi, and even the more varied content. Anyone with an interest in the work of Ray Bradbury should check out this volume, as they will not find a better treatment of the contents within.”
A beloved television deceptive gets his due in this book: ‘Christyne Berzsenyi’s Columbo: A Rhetoric of Inquiry With Resistant Responders looks at the classic series in a detailed analytical light. Books about Columbo are nothing new, but the depth of this book serves well to prove that the series can handle academic scrutiny. Columbo is a much beloved and long running property, which has in recent years regained something of a foothold in American popular culture thanks to the internet. As a result more than a few blogs are cited in the book, and conversely the volume has a larger audience than it might were the series still more obscure.’
Next is Lee Child and Otto Penzler’s The Mysterious Bookshop Presents The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021 which he say ‘is, as the name implies, a collection of excellent mystery stories published in the year 2020. With pieces from authors as well known as Stephen King and Sue Grafton, it is sure to attract attention.’
Ready from some horror? ‘Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a short horror novella dealing with the classic setup where a group of friends go to a haunted house. It is an old storytelling tool, but one that has proven effective time and time again. Still, it is often the oldest and most well known bits of horror storytelling that find new life most easily. While not an old hand at this genre, the author’s past work should make this idea most interesting.’
A bit of fantasy gets reviewed by him here: ‘James Rollins’ The Starless Crown is the first volume in a new series by the well known author. Like many epic fantasies, it focuses on a group of adventurers making a quest to deal with an imminent problem. The ways the reader beats these characters, however, show the talents Rollins possesses.’
Chuao Chocolatier’s Chocolate Bars were a mixed bag according to Cat R: ‘Most of the bars I tried were terrific but some are more successful than others. Idiosyncrasies of taste may make a difference; when I tweeted about the one I really disliked, someone mentioned that was their favorite, and bemoaned not being able to find it. And it’s not entirely fair to stack dark chocolate up against milk, particularly given that my sweet tooth resembles that of a six-year-old’s. Still, I present them in order of how much I liked them, from most to least.’
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.’
Two chocolate squares are from Willie’s Cacao, Pure Gold and Rio Caribe Gold says Robert are from a very personal undertaking: ‘Willie’s Cacao is the name of a chocolatier owned and operated by William Harcourt-Crooze, an Englishman with a passion for chocolate. Willie maintains that cacao from particular locations is like a fine wine, with its own flavor and character. Not surprisingly, given that approach, each of his chocolates is made from beans from a single estate. He uses only cacao, raw cane sugar and natural cocoa butter in his formulations.’
Donna returns from the front with word of the U.K. TV series Foyle’s War. ‘At its core, Foyle’s War is a mystery series. Each episode finds the members of its relatively small ensemble cast unraveling a case that typically involves at least one suspicious death not related to the war itself. Veteran actor Michael Kitchen is the star of the series, playing Detective Chief Superintendant Christopher Foyle, an acerbic but kind-hearted veteran of World War I.’
Donna also enjoyed sets 11 and 12 of the video releases from the long-running U.K. series Midsomer Murders. ‘To be entirely honest, it’s a bit of a misnomer to call Midsomer a series. With the exception of a very few main characters, there is virtually no continuity between the episodes. In fact, you can watch them out of order with very little sense of disorientation. However, the episodes do share some thematic similarities. For the most part, they all take place in the fictitious Midsomer region of England, an area comprised of charming little villages populated by eccentric individuals, some of whom are sexually perverted, murderous, greedy or otherwise not very nice.’
Kimberlee had a lot to say about the karmic implications and other philosophical matters in the now classic film Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray as a jerk of a TV meteorologist and the lessons he learns from having to live one particular day over and over again. ‘It’s funny, but the laughs come from a serious place. The fact that one man is able to re-stabilize his karma in the reliving of one day gives us all a measure of hope. If sarcastic weatherman Phil Connors can pull it off – and make us care about him in spite of his initial flaws – we can do it too.’
Amusing and poignant is how David found Drew Friedman’s Old Jewish Comedians. ‘Friedman doesn’t hesitate to present his subjects in portraits that show all their warts. And working with this motley bunch, there are warts galore. The portraits, save for the front and back covers (Milton Berle and Moe Howard) are all in glorious black and white. But rich black and white (with little touches of sepia for texture). The reproductions are glorious.’
Deborah raved a little bit about Ari Berk’s The Secret History of Giants, which she found charming and delightful: ‘This is a book that I want to share with children; it’s certainly staying on my shelf until I have children of my own to appreciate it as I do. Such a cleverly designed and captivating volume of fantasy demands nothing less than the inquiring and imaginative minds of children ready to discover tales of hidden folk – and then to imagine their own encounters with those folk with such enthralling new fodder.’
Big Earl wrote a typically thoughtful review of a CD of traditional and popular Mongolian music, Tsagaan Sar’s White Moon. ‘Not really a band per se, Tsagaan Sar is more a collection of independent Mongolian musicians, nominally named “Melodies of the Steppes,” keeping alive ancient musical traditions. Recorded in the Netherlands, this collection brings together ancient songs about love, faith – and horses, the raising and selling of which are the basis of the Mongolian economy.’
Gary reviews a new release from an Arkansas based band, Sad Daddy’s Way Up in the Hills. ‘The music they make is broadly acoustic country music, loosely falling into the now so broad as to be nearly meaningless category of Americana. But all four members are top-notch songwriters, lead and harmony singers, and players of multiple instruments. And all are deeply grounded in the various roots and branches of acoustic Americana: early country, blues, ragtime and jazz like Jimmie Rodgers, Carter Family, and Leadbelly, revivalist crooners like Leon Redbone, freak folkies like the Rounders and Michael Hurley, and old time and bluegrass.
Gary also gives the nod to Maya De Vitry’s Violet Light, the third solo album by this Tennessee singer-songwriter. ‘On this album it seems she’s really finding her voice – opening her heart in these 11 songs about busking with friends, losing dear canine companions, surviving close brushes with death, and being inspired by a favorite female author. Recorded with an expansive crew of guest musicians and produced in a basement home studio during the pandemic, these songs also broach some difficult topics like police violence, the deaths of close family members, and the oppression inherent in global capitalism.’
Kevin learned a lot from a release from Faroese composer Kristian Blak that blends modern classical and jazz idioms, Yggdrasil’s Two Suites by Kristian Blak: The Four Towers and Heygar og Dreygar. ‘His music is a stylistic cornucopia of contrasting sounds and styles, and I was genuinely surprised at how avant-garde his sensibilities were (though, in retrospect, this makes sense, considering the climate of classical music in the latter half of the 20th century). There are many purely jazz cues, of course, and these tend to lie within a more traditional scope of harmony and rhythm. But the overwhelming impression I got was one of an audaciously experimental musician who is not afraid to test new waters in order to further his artistic expression. This CD was thus a refreshing listen for me, although it will no doubt be challenging (even daunting) for many.’
Peter does a ‘compare and contrast’ review of CDs from a couple of folk singers, Jimmy Hutchinson’s Corachree and Gary Greene’s The Grand Imagineer. ‘Neither of these singers are particularly famous, both are different, but similar in their own way. All of it makes up the rich pattern of folk music.’
Cat has a truly adorable creature for us: ‘I am here today to speak of Rodents of an Unusual Size. No, not the ones that the hero battles in the Swamp in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, but rather the far more adorable ones that came in recently to Green Man, the Folkmanis’s Mouse with Vest.’
So let’s finish off with some choice music from Nightnoise, to wit ‘Toys, Not Ties’ which was performed at Teatro Calderón de la Barca, which is a theater in Valladolid, Spain, on the 23rd of April twenty-six years ago. For more on this superb sort of Celtic band, go read our career retrospective here. Nightnoise had its origins in members of the Bothy Band and Skara Brae, august bands indeed, and also included fiddler Johnny Cunningham for a while.