Every good fiddler has a distinctive sound. No matter how many play the same tune, each can’t help but play it differently. Some might use an up stroke where another would a down. One might bow a series of quick single notes where another would play them all with one long draw of the bow. Some might play a double stop where others would a single string. If the listener’s ear was good enough, she could tell the difference. But you had to know the tunes, and the players, for the differences were minute. — Fiaina in Charles de Lint’s Drink Down the Moon
Candlemas is well past which means Spring’s here. We marked Candlemas here not as a Church celebration but rather as the time when the days are noticeably longer. We’ve got a Several Annie by the name of Astrid, from Sweden, who initiated the present Estate residents into the tradition of St. Lucia’s Day.
Its been an unusually rough winter here with Gus, our Estate Head Gardener, suffering several broken ribs when one of our draft horses pinned him up against a stone wall. Not the horse’s fault, as he was startled by an owl swooping toward him. And our Head Cook, Mrs. Ware, has been away for a month as her daughter took ill and the grandchildren needed looking after. And the Pandemic has still kept us isolated from the rest of the world though hopefully that’s ending soon.
We’re very fond of works of Roger Zelazny here and April has a look at a work about his longest work: ‘Roger Zelazny’s Amber series spans three decades, ten volumes, several short stories, a RPG, graphic novels and even a recent revival attempt (John Betancourt’s Dawn of Amber series). Packed into those original books and stories is a wealth of characters, settings, items and plots — far too much minutiae for any but the most die-hard fan to remember. And that’s where Krulik’s The Complete Amber Sourcebook comes in. The Sourcebook is not for someone who has not read the entire series, as spoilers are literally everywhere. Krulik assumes an audience already familiar with the core set of books.’
Cat had high hopes for Philip DePoy’s The Devil’s Hearth, as he has ‘a special fondness for mystery series set in the Appalachian Mountains, even though there aren’t a lot of good ones and a lot of not so great ones. Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballads series had some memorable outings, particularly among the later novels, and one which was outstanding, Ghost Riders.’ Read his review to see if DePoy lived up to his expectations.
Cat leads off a review in this way: ‘If you started listening to audiobooks over the past ten or so years, considered yourself to be extremely lucky as you’re living in a true Golden Age where narration, production, and ease of useless is extremely good. But long ago, none of that was something you could take as a given as it most decidedly wasn’t.’ Now read his review of Roger Zelazny’s Isle of Dead to see if this older audiobook transcended these limitations.
Gary first takes a deep dive into Ancestral Night, the first volume in Elizabeth Bear’s White Space series. ‘I love a good space opera and Ancestral Night is a very good one. Bear mentions both C.J. Cherryh and Iain Banks in her Acknowledgments, and I definitely see traces of both those space opera forbears in this book’s themes and accoutrements.’
Gary reviews one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s most recent books, Red Moon, a near future SF tale set entirely on the Moon and in China. ‘Red Moon is a compelling novel, which you can say about many of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books. This book gives you a lot to think about when pondering the near future, especially what it might mean for life on Earth – politically, socially and economically – to have working colonies on the Moon.’
Grey likes this novel a lot: ‘Charles de Lint’s Medicine Road stands nicely on its own as a complete story, but longtime readers of de Lint will find the story enriched by former characters, bringing the flavor of their pasts with them: Laurel and Bess, obviously, but also Bettina from Forests of the Heart. De Lint also draws on imagery and myth from Terri Windling’s lovely novel, The Wood Wife, incorporating it into his own Arizonan landscape. It’s a delight to meet the “aunts and uncles” again, to feel their watching presence from the saguaro and other ancient rooted beings here.’
Iain reviewed the audiobook edition of The Owl Service when it came out a decade back: ‘Listening to The Owl Service as told by Wayne Forester, who handles both the narration and voicing of each character amazingly well, one is impressed by his ability to handle both Welsh accents and the Welsh language, given the difficultly of that tongue, which make Gaelic look easy as peas to pronounce by comparison.’
The Ides of Octember: A Pictorial Biblography of Roger Zelazny is, Iain notes, ‘a bibliography which was prepared as part of The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, a six volume undertaking, of which you’ll find the first volume, Threshold, reviewed here.’ Read his review on this bibliography which only diehard Zelazny fans or libraries with a strong sf emphasis should consider buying, so quite naturally we have a copy.
Joel has a review of China Miéville intertwined cities as told in his Hugo winning The City & The City novel: ‘With acknowledgments to writers as diverse as Chandler, Kafka, and Kubin (to say nothing of Orwell), I don’t need to tell you this won’t be your typical detective story. But given this is Miéville, would you have really expected a typical anything?’
Lars has a review of Brian Hinton and Geoff Wall’s biography of Ashley Hutchings: The Guv’nor & the Rise of Folk Rock as Ashley helped birth both of those groups: ‘To some of us the subject of this book is, if not God, at least the musical equivalent to the pope. Name a group you like and have followed over the years, and there is a fair chance that Mr. Hutchings was there to start it, or at least influence the starting of it. He is in one way or another responsible for a very large number of the records in my collection, and yes, we are certainly talking three figures, here.’
Lenora gives an incisive review of Black Is the Colour of My True-love’s Heart, an Ellis Peters novel: ‘Originally published in 1967, ‘this is a book of music, of silence, of words; it has love, hate, and all their analogues. Myths and facts combine to wrap the storyline in a heavy cloak of authenticity. This is a story of high passion and cool deliberation; it dances through the morals and minds of another age and gives the reader a wide window into the world of folk music and ballad-singers.’
Robert says of Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop that ‘I was prepared to like this book just because of the publisher’s name — and, of course, the fact that it is by Kate Wilhelm, one of science fiction’s legends: aside from the quality of her stories, in the 1950s and 60s she was one of the two or three women of note in a field dominated by men. Being a writer-working-on-being-a-novelist, I am particularly drawn to books about the craft of writing, and to have one about the Clarion Writers’ Workshop drop into my lap was an unlooked-for gift.’
We have a couple of archival book reviews to accompany this week’s featured music selections from the catalog of Irish fiddler Brian McNeill – who’s also a published and popular author! What did our reviewers think of his early efforts? Well … first up, Cat reviews McNeill’s The Busker. ‘The bottom line is that I believe The Busker is a poorly written novel, but The Busker And The Devil’s Only Daughter CD that is the companion to this novel is a brilliant piece of music that one should hear if one loves Scottish folk music.’
Next, Deb took a crack at To Answer The Peacock, because she loved the companion CD. ‘I really, really wanted to be able to give this book the same unqualified praise that I’ve lavished on McNeill’s music; unfortunately, I cannot do that. Despite my reservations, however, I found the book interesting, since it’s set in places I have yet to go but would like to visit someday.’
Cat binged on the U.K. television series A Mind to Kill, Series One, which is set and filmed in Wales. What’d he think? ‘A brilliant show, well-acted with an intelligent story and an engaged and talented cast, filmed on location. Perfect. I look forward to seeing the second series when Acorn releases it!’
What did Cat think about the U.K. television series Bonekickers? Funny you should ask. ‘It’s amazing how horrible it is given it came from the creators of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, two must-see shows. The storyline, which has a cliched Excalibur premise, is badly told and requires a leap of faith that even I who regularly read British fantasy couldn’t make; the dialogue is bad enough to make me want to rewrite it on the fly; and let’s not mention the back story that simply doesn’t hold together at all.
Liz reviewed Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which she says combines elements of fairy tales and SF. ‘The film sets a plucky little robot, David, on a hero’s journey. During the course of David’s quest, the film examines the nature of humanity. What does it mean to be human? Is it having the right DNA? The ability to feel emotions? The ability to dream and imagine? The ability to die?’
So let’s start off with American whisky. Gary looks at a detailed history of that drink: ‘I realize that movie Westerns are no longer the cultural touchstone they were for my generation, but I’m sure many of you have no trouble remembering a movie scene in which a cowboy walks into a saloon, orders a whiskey and the barkeep pours him one from a clear glass quart-size bottle. Maybe the cowboy even says “I’ll take the bottle” and heads for a table. Sorry, but it probably didn’t happen that way. Like so many other historical details, the makers of Westerns probably got that one wrong, or so implies Reid Mitenbuler in his lucid book Bourbon Empire.’
Next up is more whisky. The late Iain Banks, best known for his Culture novels such as The Hydrogen Sonata and Surface Detail, decided to ask his publisher for money to sample the smaller whiskey distilleries in Scotland. The resulting book, Raw Spirit: In Search of The Perfect Dram was given a rave review by our Cornish-based Michael, who aptly notes that ‘This review was written over Hogmanay, 2003, under the influence of Ardbeg and Glenmorangie Port-Wood Finish, both of which, I’m delighted to report, meet with the approval of Mr Banks.’
Something boozy gets reviewed by Robert now to finish off this section: ‘Trader Joe’s Assortment of Boozy Little Chocolate Truffles seems to be a seasonal item, which is possibly why they’re not listed on the Trader Joe’s website, which in turn is why I’m not able to provide any background information. Trader Joe’s, of course, is the national grocery chain that’s hip, fun, and offers a lot of things you can’t find elsewhere, with an emphasis on natural ingredients, all offered under the “Trader Joe’s” brand.’
It’s not exactly a graphic novel, but April applauds Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman as ‘a thorough examination of Gaiman’s body of work. Actually, thorough is an understatement; Wagner, Golden and Bissette have compiled 500 plus pages of information about Gaiman, his diverse output and its impact. Prince of Stories is both a treasure trove for fans and a bibliography extraordinaire up to and including 2008’s Graveyard Book.’
Richard says Camelot 3000 was a comics ‘landmark’ in the 1980s and remains so today. ‘The first finite run “maxi-series” DC published, it explored territory that, in the early ’80s, was not common ground for any mainstream comic book: gender roles and sexuality, the morality of treatment of prisoners and the ultimate self-sacrifice. All of this was wrapped up in a rollicking science fantasy tale of King Arthur and his knights coming back to save Earth from an alien invasion secretly sponsored by the dread Morgan Le Fay.’
Richard says the GraphicAudio presentation of Batman: The Stone King has some problems. ‘It would be foolish to think that there’s no way to do a good audio play of Batman material. After all, of all of the major comic book heroes, he has the most in common with The Shadow, and Lamont Cranston certainly ruled the airwaves for long enough. But The Stone King is a graphic novel trying to be a novel trying to be an audiobook of a radio play, and as such, it’s best skipped.’
‘This is such a joyous album,’ Gary says of Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves’ second album Hurricane Clarice. ‘By which I mean that few things give me more joy than to see and hear each new generation mastering traditional music and making it their own. Allison de Groot and Tatiana Hargreaves bring their family traditions and history, the art and literature that inspires them and everything else in their young lives to this music, and continue the tradition of making the old new with each generation.’
‘How much more is there left to lose?’ Gary says, ‘That’s a good summary of the spirit of this eponymous album born of the fortuitous conjoining of two of the greatest underground bands on the globe – alt-country outliers Freakwater and U.K. punk cum Americana rabble rousers Mekons. If you’re spoiling for a good bit of pro-union, pro-worker, pro-environment musical mayhem, you’re in the right place with Freakons.’
Gary instantly recognized the sound of Stefan Aeby Trio’s Fairy Circus, but he says the music seems a bit less “graceful” than past excursions. ‘The third track, for instance, is called ” The Wolves Are Waiting” and it can’t help but remind me of the unsettled feeling I live with constantly due to the war currently going on in this German and Swiss trio’s back yard, as it were.’
‘It’s a lovely album with a strong Mediterranean vibe, alternately sunny and melancholy – and sometimes both at once,’ Gary says of Almalé’s Hixa Mía. ‘It’s a sound based in ancient music – medieval, Renaissance and baroque – but with a host of modern influences, all kept close to their roots. No pernicious dancehall beats creep in here.’
From the archives, our extensive coverage of Scottish fiddler Brian McNeill:
Everyone loves McNeill’s liner notes including Cat, who reviewed his collaboration with Tom McDonagh, Horses for Courses. ‘I can’t possibly tell the story of the tunes and songs on the CD as well as Brian does in his two page essay in the liner notes. (He notes Horses for Courses is in part inspired by a disasterous race, the English Grand National, when everything went wrong!)’
Cat was quite pleased with an album by a Danish group with a nifty name, which McNeill had a hand in as well. ‘I consider Brian McNeill to be one of the finest musicians ever. And now it turns out that he’s a truly great producer too! Bothwell, the second CD by Danish group Drones & Bellows was produced by Brian and bears more than a passing resemblence to many albums he was released under his own appellation.’
Deb Skolnik discovered McNeill as a solo artist with his CD No Gods, and she found it much to her liking from the get-go. ‘Skirling bagpipes and a full horn section at a furious pace preface the vocals to the title song (also the first track on the album), which debunks the “all the ridiculous, over-romanticised baggage of Scottish history.” What good are the “heroes” like Bonnie Prince Charlie, asks McNeill, when so many of the present-day Scots still live a hand-to-mouth existence?’
Deb reviewed a McNeill CD that is a companion to his first novel: ‘… McNeill is not only an accomplished musician and songwriter, he is an author too, and The Busker And The Devil’s Only Daughter is the companion CD to the first of his two novels about Alex Fraser, a busker. (The other novel is titled To Answer The Peacock.) The liner notes are a story about McNeill and Fraser, written as if Fraser is more than a fictional construct. Who knows? Perhaps he is …’
Deb says she doesn’t usually care for all-instrumental albums unless they’re classical, but she makes an eception for McNeill’s To Answer The Peacock. ‘McNeill’s relationship with his music is so personal and so honest, it sometimes feels like eavesdropping into his soul to listen to him play. But since he’s recorded these for us to hear, I guess he doesn’t mind. McNeill coaxes warm, rich tones the color of rosin out of his fiddle, and he plays with such honesty and emotion that it is impossible not to be moved when you listen to this album.’
Deb also reviewed McNeill’s The Back o’ the North Wind, a concept album of sorts. ‘Subtitled “Tales of the Scots in America,” this fine collection of songs and tunes is inspired by Scots men and women, some you probably have heard of, and some you likely have not, all of whom found their way to North America. Some wound up in Canada, some wound up in the United States but all have been immortalized in music by McNeill, on this CD and in a stage show based on it (or perhaps it’s the other way round).’
Donna provides us with an omnibus review of some of McNeill’s more recent recordings including The Baltic tae Byzantium, The Crew o’ the Copenhagen (with Drones & Bellows), and The Road Never Questions. ‘I would be hard pressed to tell you which of these would be your best bet if you had to pick one, I would say you can’t go wrong with any. This is the kind of quality Scottish music for which Brian McNeill has long been known and revered.’
Our What Not comes courtesy of Pamela Dean, who was asked what her favourite ballad was: ‘As I went through all the Child ballads when I was trying to think of a frame for Juniper, Gentian, & Rosemary, and the only other remotely feminist ballad I could find was ‘Riddles Wisely Expounded,’ which is not nearly as active for the young woman as ‘Tam Lin’ is. Well, there is the one where a young woman ransoms her guy and says, ‘The blood had flowed upon the green afore I lost my laddie,’ which is nice, but all she does is take all her money and hand it over.’
Let’s go out with some music from Brian McNeill performing “Trains and My Grandfather” performed at the Music Star in Norderstedt, German on the eleventh of November, 2016. The song was recorded on No Gods.