There are few joys to compare with the telling of a well-told tale. — Charles de Lint’s Yarrow: An Autumn Tale
So what was the best book you’ve read this year? Or the best recording you’ve had a listen to? Do you have a favourite dark chocolate? Mine’s the Ritter dark chocolate with hazelnuts which is the perfect size for an afternoon snack while walking out and back to our Standing Stones.
Everything we like is unique to us as I noticed when Cat asked Deborah, author of the Haunted Ballad Series and the JP Kinkaid Chronicles, what her favourite Grateful Dead was and she replied, ‘I’m an old school Dead woman. Give me Aoxomoxoa, Anthem Of The Sun, Live Dead, Workingman’s Dead, and American Beauty. I helped Annette Flowers and Eileen Law stuff cartons of Europe ’72. After Pigpen died, they started losing me for good and never really got me back. But that was my period of Dead.’
To me, one of the joys of this enterprise we are doing is reading what other staffers, both now and going back decades, has found that they really appreciate (and what they sometimes really, really don’t appreciate) as they’re often things I’d not a clue existed such as gremlins made physical from Roald Dahl’s The Gremlins: The Lost Walt Disney Production!
So let’s see what we found for you this time.
Cat has a confession to make about Robert Heinlein’s fiction: ‘The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is, after over thirty years of my reading works beyond count by him, my favorite novel by him bar none. There are without doubt better written novels by Heinlein that stir strong passions in readers, say Starship Troopers and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, both of which can cause otherwise sensible readers to start hissing and spitting at each over the perceived political and social commentary in those books, and let’s not even broach the matter of Stranger in A Strange Land, as that work will really get the mojo rising in many readers!’
Another novel written in the last years of his life drew this comment from Cat: ‘Robert Heinlein’s Friday, was a novel that deeply divided critics when it was published. Part of that was the gender and race politics of a male author writing a female character that got raped, part of it was the usual kvetching about every novel Heinlein wrote from Stranger in a Strange Land to the end of his writing career.’
Joel looks at a juvenile, The Star Beast: ‘Beating out The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by a good three decades, and Men in Black by over four, Heinlein didn’t just do this story first, he did it best. I’ve been enjoying the recent books in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. The last few books have been much more about diplomacy than space battles, and are no less riveting for it. But who knew that Heinlein, the creator of the self-same military science fiction tradition which led to Old Man’s War, was himself quite capable of having his heroes save the day by talking and listening as well?’
Kestrell looks into the future to review John Langan’s House of Windows. What does Kestrell have to say of this work of literary horror? Well, this might help — ‘House of Windows can be read on many levels — as a modern updating of the old-fashioned ghost story, as a commentary on the psychological ‘ghosts’ created by physical and emotional abuse, and as a perceptive reading of the overlapping of classic literature with supernatural fiction. Beneath all of these, however, runs the ongoing questions of why we read at all, why do words and stories possess such an irresistible attraction for us, and what these stories can reveal — or tragically fail to reveal-to us about our own lives and experiences.’
Kathleen has a confession regarding Time For The Stars: ‘Robert Anson Heinlein is inarguably one of the great formative writers of science fiction. His work is not only seminal, it’s good — well-told, well-plotted, with solid characterization. It’s also frequently thought-provoking, with underlying philosophy and speculation that stays with the reader for a lifetime. Most modern readers attribute these qualities to the more outré and/or famous novels, like Time Enough For Love and the iconic Stranger In A Strange Land. But Heinlein’s so-called juveniles are actually among the most thoughtful of his books.’
Kim found a book that was more than merely good: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Buffalo Gals. This novella, she says, takes the reader ‘… into the magical world Gal, or Myra as she is known in some circles, experiences after being injured in a plane crash and then rescued by Coyote. Boulet’s work draws us into the world Gal sees with her new eye, a multilayered field of vision that bridges the nature and the appearance of things so beautifully communicated in Le Guin’s story. It has earned a place next to my treasured “children’s” books — the selfishness of an adult who finds some things too beautiful to actually let the wee wilds grub them up.’
Lis says ‘Lies Sleeping picks up after The Hanging Tree, with Peter Grant newly promoted to Detective Constable, and Martin Chorley, a.k.a. the Faceless Man, pursuing his dire plan, which Nightingale and Peter still don’t know nearly enough about. As they involve most of the Metropolitan Police in finding the information they need, we see Nightingale in action more than usual, Peter has some educational experiences he might have preferred to avoid, and we find out why Lesley May really decided to join Chorley. Also why, apart from wanting to destroy everything Nightingale, Peter, and most decent people hold dear, Chorley really is truly evil. All this, and more, on the way to a doozy of a conclusion.’
She also appraised T. Kingfisher’s A House with Good Bones: ‘Archaeoentomologist Sam (Samantha) Montgomery, during an interruption in work at a dig site, heads home for the first extended visit to her mother in a while. She’s not taking too seriously her brother’s warning that “Mom seems off,” and isn’t expecting anything other than an enjoyable visit with her mother. The first hint that her brother could be right might be that her mother has redecorated in Gran Mae’s style, including the Confederate wedding painting. Or, it might be the vulture perched outside.’
Paul says ‘In Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, a mostly historical fictional take on the end of the Yuan Dynasty becomes out and out fantasy when the author genderflips the future Ming Emperor, and adds some mild supernatural elements in the bargain.’
Somehow, we’ve never done a stand-alone review of Steven Brust’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, which oversight Robert has corrected for us: ‘Steven Brust’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars is a strangely deceptive novel. It seems, at first, fairly straightforward – a narrative about a group of artists trying to make it, interspersed with sections of a folk tale – but you start to wonder whether it’s really that up front or if Brust is pulling a Gene Wolfe and playing with your head – there seem to be all sorts of clues in the book, but are they?’
Cat looks at Doctor Who’s The Unicorn and The Wasp episode: ‘One of my favourite episodes of the newer episodes of this series was a country house mystery featuring a number of murders and, to add an aspect of metanarrative to the story, writer Agatha Christie at the beginning of her career. It would riff off her disappearance for ten days which occurred just after she found her husband in bed with another woman. Her disappearance is a mystery that has never been satisfactorily answered to this day.’
Our culinary review this outing is about a book edited by Louise DeSalvo and Edvige Giunta, The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture, which had a Proustian effect on Leona: ‘There is, within every Italian-American family, a story about why the family left Italy… usually, at the heart of a family’s emigration story, there is a story about food….” (from the Introduction of The Milk of Almonds). This book is a collection of those stories, each with a silver hook that dragged me through my own memories as I read.’
Cat starts us off with a smashing review of Old Blind Dogs’ Play Live. ‘The Old Blind Dogs new CD Play Live was recorded in 2004 on the road in Chicago and Tulsa and I believe captures their live feel quite well. As befits a group that was judged Best Folk Band at the 2004 Scots Traditional Music Awards. Sadly though …’ Well, read the review to find out what’s so sad!
David reviewed a couple of live offerings from the 70s singer songwriter Jim Croce: A DVD that collects material from several concerts in about 1973, and a CD of kitchen demos of what would go on to be some of his best loved songs. ‘Jim Croce is one of those artists who slipped off the radar. He was once highly thought of, a star in fact – gold records, No. 1 hits, albums on the best-seller lists. Then mentioned in rock’n’roll death contests, and in the same breath as any number of one hit wonders. Two new releases from Shout! Factory go a long way towards recovering Jim’s credibility, and forcing us to reconsider his talent and catalogue.’
Gary reviews a new release from the Malian “desert blues” band Tinariwen, their ninth studio album Amatssou. ‘This time out they draw on some major players in Americana. Grammy winning producer and guitarist Daniel Lanois (I’ve covered his albums Belladonna and Goodbye to Language) was originally signed on to produce Tinariwen’s ninth at his Nashville studio but had to bow out due to Covid, so Amatssou instead was recorded mostly in Algeria and Morocco, but Lanois was able to contribute pedal steel and piano, and some production, to three tracks.
Gary notes that one of his favorite bands, Calexico, is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its album Feast of Wire with a re-release and a special tour of Europe and North America. Read Gary’s original review of Feast of Wire, and check out the expanded re-release on vinyl or CD, and keep up with tour dates on CasaDeCalexico.com.
John Benninghouse thoroughly enjoyed two albums of medieval and Renaissance music by a pair of American musicians, Duo LiveOak’s Piva and Woman of the Water. ‘Duo LiveOak consists of Nancy Knowles and Frank Wallace. Knowles brings her voice and poetry while Wallace contributes his guitar and lute plus his voice. And he is a composer to boot. As contemporary classical artists, the pair look back to the Renaissance and Middle Ages for inspiration and song.’
John O’Regan had a good time learning about the music of Childsplay, via their CD called Childsplay Live. ‘The group Childsplay includes over two-dozen musicians drawn from the folk, traditional, Celtic, and roots music communities whose mixed backgrounds and styles blend to form a cohesive whole. Getting such a large ensembles together is not an easy task but such is the respect shown to Bob Childs and his instruments. Childsplay Live offers an exhilarating chariot ride through a myriad of diverse musical styles displaying versatility, ensemble virtuosity, technical panache, and exuberance.’
Michael Hunter took a look back at a couple of offerings from Steeleye Span including Live at Last! ‘Recorded at the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth just days before the final split in 1978, the live representation of this line up shows further diversity in their repertoire, and the presence of an obviously enthusiastic audience helps prevent any perceived malaise in performance that some may see in the studio album. Kirkpatrick takes lead on the opening instrumental “Athol Highlanders / Walter Bulwer’s Polka” and with [Martin] Carthy’s distinctive acoustic guitar adding its part, the integration of the two ‘new’ members is quite apparent by this stage, while still sounding like a band worthy of the name Steeleye Span.’
Our What Not is one that we like to use often here… We’ve asked some well-respected writers as to what was their favourite folk song and why. The answers were illuminating to say the least! The very much missed Kage Baker gave us a Grateful Dead-ish answer: ‘Probably ‘The Rambling Sailor’. The lyrics are sort of heartless, but it makes a helluva dance tune, especially a morris dance. I was once at a morris-ale held in an oak forest one summer night in northern California. Kate and I were providing the ale. The conditions were perfect — a full moon, thunder rumbling around the sky, there was a big turnout of dancers, we had a fairly full band– two fiddlers, a concertina, a standing bass, a couple of pennywhistles and a shawm.
There was a lantern strung up in the branches of this one big oak tree that must have been about 400 years old, and the dancing was done in the open space underneath. The different sides did the usual tunes, with the sword dances and the sticks, but then everyone got out the white handkerchiefs and the band struck up ‘Rambling Sailor’. There must have been fifty or sixty dancers moving in perfect time, and my memory insists the boys were all as beautiful as young satyrs and the girls all looked like wood nymphs. The white cloths flashed like seagull wings. The little gold bells rang. The ground shook. It was one of the most perfect moments of my life.’
It being almost Summer, let’s have something warm and sprightly for our music this time. Hmmm… ‘Kashmir’ by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant will do nicely! It was recorded apparently thirty five years ago, possibly at Glastonbury but I wouldn’t bet the farm on how truthful that is. It’s definitely a lovely take by them on this Moroccan influenced work