Any AI smart enough to pass a Turing test
is smart enough to know to fail it.
Ian McDonald’s River of Gods
I woke well before dawn as I wanted to watch the Northern Lights, which have been particularly outstanding lately. Though none of the humans save Tamsin, our Hedgewitch, on the Estate joined me, but several of the Irish wolfhounds that guard our livestock accompanied me as well and even some of Tamsin’s owl companions flew low overhead. We, well at least we humans, found them fascinating as the wolfhounds and owls seemed to be playing a rather complicated chase game that even Tamsin admitted she hadn’t even a clue what it meant.
We later had breakfast back in the Kitchen nook created originally for members of the Neverending Session to play in the Kitchen – thick cut thrice smoked applewood bacon, blueberry waffles with butter and maple syrup, tea for me and Tamsin as well, and Border strawberries, the ones that start red as blood and turn white as bleached bone, as well. We both felt like in need of a very long walk to work it off, or a long nap … I however needed to put this together so both choices were put off for later consideration!
Although Gary notes that Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock is a post-Covid novel, it is not about Covid or any other pandemic. ‘It is Stephenson’s entry into the growing oeuvre of SFF novels about people finally doing something about the climate emergency.’
Our music section this time has extensive archival coverage of the music of The Waterboys, so we’re also pointing you to Gary’s review of Mike Scott’s memoir Adventures of a Waterboy. Gary was pleasantly surprised by it. ‘The moment I opened this book about Mike Scott and started reading it was when I first realized that it was a memoir. And if you’ve read many musicians’ autobiographies, you’ll know why my heart sank. “Oh, great, another slog through a couple hundred pages of mediocre writing at best.” It didn’t take long for Mr. Scott to dispel that notion. And when I reached the end of Chapter 1, I said out loud, “This guy can really write!” Not just songs, but prose, too.’
Lis, who joins us this edition, thoroughly enjoyed a reissued classic mystery novel, Anthony Boucher’s Rocket to the Morgue, featuring LAPD Detective Lt. Terence Marshall. It has an SF tie-in, too: ‘… Marshall is investigating a locked-room attempted murder, questioning a selection of potential suspects from the Mañana Literary Society, the informal social circle of the science fiction writers living in and around Los Angeles at the time. For dedicated science fiction fans, this adds some extra fun, because these writers are mostly thinly disguised major sf writers of the period. However, if you’re only here for the mystery, you won’t notice, and it won’t distract from the story.’
‘I’ll admit, a couple of years ago I knew little about the genre of “comic fantasy,” ‘ our reviewer Joel said. By the time he’d finished the two volumes of editor Mike Ashley’s The Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy, he was won over. ‘Together, this pair of books forms an eclectic, unique, and memorable collection of the type of odd short fiction you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Anyone looking for something different need look no further.’
Paul, another new reviewer, says “Lavie Tidhar’s Neom is a stunning return to his world of Central Station, twining the fates of humans and robots alike at a futuristic city on the edge of the Red Sea.”
Warner leads off with a cozy for us: ‘M.C. Beaton with R.W. Green’s Down The Hatch is a very nice entry in the Agatha Raisin series. While there is not a great deal of change to the status quo, that is at least as much a boon as a hindrance for a cozy little mystery. While not an ideal starting point for the series, overall it remains enjoyable and easy to recommend. Fans of the rest of the series will love it, and it wouldn’t hurt curious onlookers to give it a try.’
And another cozy mystery caught his eye: ‘Buried in a Good Book is a very nice beginning for a series. Tamara Berry includes a number of wonderful characters in the book, and a story that grips the reader enough to look forward to the twists and turns that come. A reader should check this out if they like cozy mysteries, and eagerly await the next volume.’
Next he has a mystery collection for us: ‘Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies is an important piece of crime and mystery novel history. The tale itself is a splendid blend of drawing room mystery and look at the world of Harlem during the Great Depression, warts and all.’
He has a popular female detective for us: ‘Kerry Greenwood’s The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions: The Ultimate Phryne Fisher Short Story Collection is pretty much exactly what it says on the cover. Featuring more than 16 stories related to the character, the fact the bulk of them had been pinted before might make some hesitate. Yet there are a handful of new stories within, as well as other added material, all in a tight little package.’
Chocolat! Peanut butter! Holmes vampires! He looked next at a works that combines the latter: ‘Christian Klaver’s Sherlock Holmes & Count Dracula is a mashup of two of the most well known figures in the history of publishing. While these two characters have been often combined, the myriad ways it can be done will mean a great deal of interest for new interpretations.’
A more classic mystery finishes off his reviews: ‘James Kestrel’s Five Decembers is a fascinating example of the historical mystery, and a surprisingly quality example of avoiding the mistakes that can often fall into a novel set during a war of the last century. It also combines the war novel and detective novel extremely well, leaving appropriate surprised and horrified at approrpiate moments while never quite feeling cheated. Easy to recommend to fans of old school noir and hardboiled mystery.’
Robert has a dark fantasy film for you to consider: ‘The films of Guillermo del Toro have often dealt with innocence in a corrupt world; sometimes the innocence is found in surprising places, as in Hellboy, in which a demon becomes a savior. He also plays with the idea of redemption through transformation in such a way that the concept becomes almost Wagnerian in scope. And in Pan’s Labyrinth, he hinges these ultimately profound themes on a child’s belief in fairy tales.
Of course, the most well-known film by Guillermo del Toro was Hellboy which gets reviewed here by Mia: ‘I really, really don’t like comic book adaptation films. I hated Christopher Reeves and the Superman films, the Batman films (with the exception of Batman Returns, which I liked due to Catwoman and the Penguin) made me cringe, and X-Men was barely so-so on my ratings scale. I skipped The Hulk entirely, at the recommendation of friends who used words like “ghastly” and “abomination,” and I have yet to sit through Spiderman or Blade. So you’re probably wondering why I’m the chosen reviewer for Hellboy, yes?’ Now read her review to see why she madly loved it.
I would feature this beer review by Denise just for the name of the company, Terrapin Beer Company, and the beer, Dancing Gummy Beer Hemp Cherry Berliner Weisse, but her opening riff is precious too: ‘I remember falling in love with German Weißbier years ago when I first visited Germany. I tried to re-create that experience at home, but could only find its much inferior cousin, the Belgian Wheat. Cue that sad trombone. Perhaps it’s the raw malt in the Belgian stuff, or the way Weißbier is often blended with Sprite or whatever lemon-lime soda on hand to make it extra refreshing. (Try Weißbier with a touch of grapefruit juice. TRUST ME.) Whatever it is, I was a sad panda for years, until my neck of the woods started getting the good Deutch stuff. Or, like Terrapin.’
Big Earl had mixed but overall positive feelings about The Acoustic Folk Box, a set of English acoustic folk music. ‘I’ve always had the view that compilations come in two shades: the first are uniform releases that stand as a cohesive whole; the second are generalist overviews, with listenable and skippable tracks. This four disc set from the fine folks at Topic falls into the latter category. I suppose trying to shoebox four decades worth of material from one incredibly broad folk tradition is bound to drop some clinkers for the sake of padding or filler. But overall this set is quite good, especially for people unfamiliar with the traditions it covers.’
David took a trip down memory lane with a two-CD set from Arlo Guthrie, Live in Sydney. ‘Telling tales is one of the things Arlo does best, and this new double CD set features many of his stories. Whether talking about his dad, or Cisco Houston, or singing the same songs after 40 years. His voice is sounding older, but he’s still an engaging speaker, funny and charming. And his stories are darned interesting.’
It was with sadness that we learned of the passing of the great American guitarist, singer and songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps, on May 31. Our archives contain several of Gary’s reviews of Phelps’s recordings including Shine Eyed Mister Zen, Sky Like a Broken Clock and its companion EP, Beggar’s Oil, and his final studio album Brother Sinner and the Whale. Gary also reviewed a live performance in Portland, Oregon.
Gary was a fan of Angel Olsen’s early albums, and he finds her new release Big Time a welcome return to her folk, country, and singer-songwriter roots. ‘Now in her mid 30s with new vistas of honesty and grief in her life, she comes back to a warmer, more intimate and vulnerable place with her music. Big Time is a country album of sorts, largely written in Southern California’s Topanga Canyon, that bastion of country-rock and folk, full of crying pedal steel guitar and pulsing organ, strummed acoustic guitars and languid waltz-time songs of love and loss and perhaps more love.’
Gary reviewed a new release from T.S. Monk and his sextet, a live album called Two Continents – One Groove. ‘After spending the ’70s and ’80s making soul and R&B music with various groups, drummer T.S. “Toot” Monk returned to his jazz roots in the early ’90s, and he’s been playing with one sextet and another pretty much continuously since then. This, surprisingly, is his first live release, and it’s a doozy.’
John wasn’t too excited about the Cowboy Junkies’ In the Time Before Llamas, an oddly titled album of live recordings made by the BBC. ‘The band are in fine form technically. The starts and stops of Bob Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” are pulled off flawlessly. The slow, sad shuffle of “To Love Is To Bury” suits Timmins’ hushed voice well – but too much of the album is made with that formula, and with too little deviation.’
Kim clued us in to The Man in the Moon Drinks Claret, an album by an obscure English electro-folk group with an even more obscure name. ‘Pyewackett were one of those groups that defied categorization: experimenting with English traditional material, early music from France and Italy, and electronic music. While playing as a dance band with a caller, they also played in concerts in the UK, and abroad as part of the British Council tours. It’s not surprising to learn that Pyewackett’s members met at university in the late 1970s, where their common interests led to a very creative ensemble with an entertaining repertoire.’
No’am was … less than thrilled with his advance review copy of The Waterboys’ A Rock In The Weary Land. ‘So what have you got? Mainly distorted vocals over a heavy rock beat. The opening “Let It Happen” adds a ghostly whistle to a gloomy chord sequence, and it’s easy to picture a graveyard in the middle of the night. God knows whether that is what’s intended by the lyrics, because there aren’t any printed lyrics and Mike Scott’s screech isn’t too easy to decipher.’
Peter settled down one June to review … an album of Christmas music. We’ll let him explain, in his review of Robin Bullock, Al Petteway and Amy White’s A Midnight Clear. ‘For an album subtitled ‘A Celtic Christmas’ it’s ironic that I am writing this review at Summer Solstice, 21st June. I don’t think I had realised before researching this album how different Christmas is on the two sides of the Atlantic, and indeed elsewhere around the world. In the U.K., it is perceived as a celebration (in the eyes of the Church) in the Americas it is a holiday, although we both have the same theme. The Winter Solstice (December 21st), the beginning of the sun’s return, was celebrated for many centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ as a pagan winter festival. The Church devised Christmas as we know it to encompass or replace sun worshipping. It does not really matter that much, but at the time of Christmas with the warmth expressed with the feeling of goodwill you get when singing Christmas carols is very real — wherever you are.’
Scott enthusiastically reviewed the Warsaw Village Band’s People’s Spring, their first widely released album and second overall. ‘As could probably be guessed by the band’s name, the Warsaw Village Band hails from Poland’s capital city, but plays the folk music that developed in its homeland’s villages. What might surprise people, though, is how this group of six young Poles generally prefers to play these old songs and tunes. Fiddlers Katarzyna Szurman, Sylwia Świątkowska, and Wojciech Krzak; bassist Maja Kleszcz; and drummers Piotr Gliński and Maciej Szajkowski describe their style as “hardcore folk” and perform with an aggression and lack of subtlety typical of punk bands.’
Scott also covered the Warsaw Village Band’s next outing, entitled Uprooting. ‘One of the few relative weaknesses of People’s Spring was the lack of originality in the vocal arrangements; the women always sang together and in unison. For Uprooting the band gave the vocals a much stronger emphasis. While roughly half the tracks on People’s Spring were instrumentals, only “Polka From Sieradz Region” on the new album features no vocals. In addition, the three women do quite a bit of nice harmonizing, and Kleszcz and Sobczak also turn in some fine lead vocal performances.’
Our Stephen turned in an indepth, nearly track-by-track review of albums by Mike Scott and The Waterboys from 1983 through 2000. Complete with some suggestions for further listening and even further reading for each album. He had, it seems, a lot to say. ‘After two decades as a prolific recording and performing artist Mike Scott is still perceived as something of an enigma. The movers, shakers and self-appointed scene setters of the music business have often viewed him as deliberately contrary, a loose canon. Reviewers, confused by his frequent stylistic changes of direction have sung his praises and poured out scorn and derision in almost equal measure. Many of his faithful fans have cast him in the mould of a mythical hero – a Celtic soul, a poet, a journeyman mystic with a rock ‘n’ roll heart. It’s a role that he appears to neither court nor feel entirely comfortable with.’
He also reviewed three other albums that compile rarities and live sessions by The Waterboys, because of course he did. It’s a shorter but still thorough look at Fisherman’s Blues Part Two, The Live Adventures of The Waterboys, and The Secret Life of the Waterboys 81-85. ‘Away with all cynics and skeptics, Mike Scott is not a man to lightly dismiss his own legacy, or to insult the intelligence of his audience with sub-standard Waterboys music. Consequently, these albums are much more than mere “fillers.” ‘
Our What Not this time is Gus in a letter to Anna describing a folkloric aspect of this Scottish estate: ‘There are everything from ashrays (sea ghosts) to wulvers, a sort of werewolf but, alas, no trolls in Scotland. There is however now a splendidly ugly and rather large troll under the bridge over the river that’s below the Mill Pond. How it got there is a story worth knowing which is why I’m telling you in this letter.’
Finally, if nothing makes you feel better than a good sad song, you’re in luck! We’ll send you off with a lovely tear-jerker from the Canadian folk duo of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, who perform as Whitehorse. They played their song ‘Die Alone’ (it was on their August 2017 release Panther In The Dollhouse) at Toronto’s legendary Massey Hall.