We keep our cats as happy as we can. — Anna Nimmhaus
The piper at the gates of dawn has resumed their ritual after taking most of the summer off. Now from just before the first light hits the high meadow with its benediction of the new day ’til several minutes later when the sunrise glistens off the slate roof of Kinrowan Hall, the piper plays on. Some say the instrument is Great Medievel Pipes but I doubt that as I’ve never seen them here; more likely is that they are border pipes or uilleann pipes, which can be amazingly loud.
I’m now inside our Kitchen this morning as it’s just cold this morning for this time of the year. Autumn’s not even here but the weather’s giving us an early taste of what’s to come. Even the Estate felines and canines who like going outside are sticking close to the fireplaces and other warm spots inside Kinrowan Hall today.
In between lots of coffee and setting up my ‘office’ – which is myself, a large mug of Blue Mountain coffee and my iPad – in the sitting corner of the Kitchen, I’ve been editing this Edition which includes a a bevy of interesting things as always – though notice that the book reviews are all mysteries this time. Oh and Gary has a brilliant ending piece of music for us by Norwegian guitarist and composer Trond Kallevåg.
Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke found all of Donna’s pleasure points: ‘At first I thought it was a murder mystery, and it’s true that the plot revolves in part around a mysterious murder that the protagonist and narrator, Hannah Vogel, determines to unravel. The story takes place in Berlin in 1931, during the latter days of the Weimar Republic. So it’s a historical murder mystery. I would further characterize A Trace of Smoke as belonging to the noir subgenre in terms of its grittiness. However, the rest of this review should make clear, it also contains elements of suspense and romance, a very appealing mix for my taste.’
Donna takes a deep look into the noir fiction of Phillip Kerr, including six titles: Berlin Noir (which collects three books), The One From the Other, A Quiet Flame, and If the Dead Rise Not. ‘Yes, this is a detective series, for sure. The first person narrator and principal character is one Bernhard (Bernie) Gunther, a hard-boiled homicide detective who quits the Berlin police force (the Kripo) because he doesn’t want to become a member of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party. He becomes a private investigator, at least for a while. Taken altogether, the novels span a period of nearly a quarter century, and in that time Bernie covers a lot of territory, both in terms of his location and in terms of his means of support.’
Donna also found Paul Grossman’s The Sleepwalkers notable for its authenticity. ‘Although I have read a lot of novels that capture the look and feel of 1930s Berlin (as I have seen it depicted in film and still photographs) rather well, I have to acknowledge Paul Grossman for his detailed and compelling descriptions of particular locales. In a paragraph of a baker’s dozen lines, he draws a very clear picture of the Alexanderplatz. I’d never realized before that it was the home of the city’s two largest department stores (Wertheim and Tietz) as well as the police station. When Willi rides the S-Bahn out to Spandau, Grossman provides a lyrical description of the urban scenes that roll past the windows of the commuter train.’
Donna continued on the theme of novels set during WWII with Rebecca Cantrell’s A Night of Long Knives, and David Downing’s Stettin Station. ‘There is nothing light or amusing in either of these novels. I would characterize them instead as harrowing page-turners. They also both share common themes regarding the heroism displayed by ordinary people when they find themselves challenged by events around them. If you share my interest in this difficult period in history, I certainly encourage you to check them out!’
James R. Benn’s Billy Boyle and The First Wave combine WWII murder mystery with action adventure and historical fiction, all of which Donna enjoys. ‘Both of these novels do a good job of portraying the dangers and the moral ambiguities of war. Benn, a professional librarian with an obvious World War II fascination, makes excellent use of historical events and other details, such as descriptions of uniforms, weapons, and vehicles, to lend verisimilitude to his stories.’
For good measure she also covers Blood Alone, James R. Benn’s follow-up to Billy Boyle and The First Wave; it takes place mostly on Sicily. ‘I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say that the plot revolves around the (historically accurate) use of Sicilian Americans as agents in pulling off the invasion. Among these was the gangster Lucky Luciano, then imprisoned at Great Meadows Penitentiary, who through third parties was able to make contact with Don Calogero Vizzini, a Sicilian Mafia leader who persuaded thousands of members of the Italian armed forces to surrender to the Allies rather than continue fighting against them. The combination of World War II intrigues with Mafia plots and counter-plots makes for a very exciting story!’
Author Bartle Bull Sr. excelled at describing scenes and intense action, Donna says in her review of his books Shanghai Station and China Star. ‘That intensity of experience has its downsides, if you are a sensitive reader. All of Bull’s books are rife with violence and eroticism, often as not intermingled in the same scenes. He also has a tendency to use strong imagery to describe cultural practices. In these two novels, for example, he dwells extensively and at length on the Chinese custom of foot binding. In many respects, these books suggest what The Indiana Jones Chronicles might have looked like if they had been R-rated. About the only R-rated element missing from Bull’s narratives – and I mean completely missing – is crude or obscene language.’
Finally, Elizabeth reviews Jonathan Green’s Unnatural History, which combines mystery, alternate history, and pulp and a way she wasn’t crazy about. ‘This novel reads like pulp from top to bottom. The book takes place in an alternate 1997, one in which Queen Victoria and the British Empire are still alive and in control (through means not explained until the end), dinosaurs still exist, dandies still sport waistcoats and cravats while exploring Britannia-owned colonies on both the Moon and Mars, and of course, all the important people have ridiculously melodramatic names.’
David makes a strong case for the beloved British TV series Doc Martin, in his review of Season 2. ‘Doc Martin is filmed in Port Isaac, Cornwall and part of the charm of the series is the incredible beauty of the Cornish countryside and seaside. The opening credits are in time lapse photography, and show the tide receding and stranding the fishing boats on the sand. I never tire of watching these credits, as this image is particularly striking. But the programme is wonderfully written as well. These people are ordinary people going about their business. The stories are warm, sometimes shocking, often funny, and the actors playing the roles are perfect.’
Denise decided that since the Summer Solstice has come and gone, now is the time to try out some summery brews. To celebrate warmer weather, she tries two from the Flying Dog brewery, Family Tree Belgian Pale Ale and a rare nitro pour of their blood orange IPA, Bloodline. For fans of brews with a sour kick, Council Béatitude Cherry Tart Saison may strike your fancy, but she warns Saison fans, “Folks looking for a pour that’s more Saison than Sour? Probably should look elsewhere. People willing to walk on the wild (cherry) side? C’mon over.” She promises this will be the first in an ongoing series of summer brew overviews, as she attempts to find a beer, ale or cider that will hold her until her beloved porters and stouts re-emerge in the fall.
David was thrilled with every aspect of Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography by Chester Brown, a Canadian comics artist. ‘His drawings for Louis Riel are elegant – cartoony, but instantly recognizable portraits of real historical figures. His John A. MacDonald is a delightful caricature. Somewhat reminiscent of Herge, the drawings maintain a dignity and a style that is all Chester Brown. Beautiful. This is a lush and husky book, printed on heavy paper, bound well between hard covers – it is a comic book designed to last. And it is filled with such wonderful drawings, and such dependable research, it should last.
Gary has a lot to say about Norwegian/Finnish singer Sinikka Langeland’s new album, on which she is backed by an all star jazz ensemble. ‘Many of her albums have centered on the culture of Finnskogen, the “Forest of the Finns” on Norway’s border with Sweden, and have featured mythological themes, Finnish rune songs, or works by traditional poets (Hans Børli, Edith Södergran, Olav Håkonson Hauge). But on Wind And Sun she turns turns to the contemporary Norwegian playwright and poet Jon Fosse, whose poetry resonates with Langeland’s fascination with natural mysticism.’
Songs of nostalgia and mourning from Finland are featured on Emmi Kuittinen’s debut Surun Synty, Gary says. ‘She specializes in the songs and laments of Karelia and Ingermanland. In addition to lead vocals she also plays keyboards, accordion, ukulele and the Finnish-Karelian zither called kantele. Here she’s joined by Antti Rask, with whom she shares vocals in both leads and duets and who also plays ukulele and cello; Mimmi Laaksonen on wind instruments, harmonium, and vocals, and Kirsi Vinkki on vocals, fiddle, and the bowed lyre called jouhikko. Some of the best moments on Surun Synty come when all four join in marvelous harmony singing.’
Gary also reviews a grand new album by Finnish fiddler Emilia Lajunen. ‘The music on Vainaan perua: Satavuotinen Sakka is part of her doctoral studies at Sibelius, which has also included elements of dance, movement, and play, combining traditional and modern experimental approaches. It combines elements of two different Finnish traditions: the archaic, minimalist rune songs from the Kalevala tradition, which comes mainly from eastern Finland. And the dance-centric “Pelimannimusiikki” violin music of the 19th century, which comes mainly from western and central parts of Finland and is influenced by other European styles.’
This sounds interesting! Gary reviews an album of experimental music called Moonshine, by Maurice Louca and Elephantine. ‘On Moonshine, Maurice Louca’s ensemble Elephantine uses classical Middle Eastern modal music as a springboard to an entrancing blend of genre-defying sounds. It’s a dense, heady swirl of multi-cultural instrumentation united by jazz and other improvisational styles and modernist classical music.’
‘Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno have made a delightful album that reflects the changes in their lives, moving from old-time and folk country in a more indie roots and folk-pop direction as they’ve moved from Portland, Oregon to Durham, North Carolina,’ Gary says of the pair’s new album Imaginary People. ‘Now going by the stripped-down name of Viv & Riley, they’re reflecting on new maturity and a new community, working at holding on to their roots as they move forward in a troubled and troubling world.’
Also in Americana, Gary reviews Margo Cilker’s sophomore release Valley of Heart’s Delight. ‘It’s been nearly a decade on the road building a musical career for Cilker, and many of the songs here reflect lessons learned along the way. A major theme is the tension between family ties and finding your own way, keeping sight of your roots while striking out for your own place in the sun.’
Jayme makes a strong claim for an album of Scottish music: ‘For anyone who is of the firm opinion that the Battle of Culloden was the darkest moment in the history of western civilization, Smithfield Fair’s Jacobites By Name is the album you’ve been waiting for. If you’re not craving a big old steaming hunk of haggis by the time the last song fades from your stereo speakers, you’ve not got the least smidgen of Scottish blood in your veins.’
Michael was enthusiastic about Seven Nations’ debut album The Factory. ‘I’ll say it up front: The Factory has bagpipes. Lots of them. In fact, it pretty much starts off with an amazing bagpipe instrumental that soon launches into “The Factory Song,” a curious ballad based upon a handcar/traditional song and modified by Kirk McLeod for this album. It’s an energetic song with a trace of melancholy and regret, a tale of the men working day and night in a factory, the sort of song they might have sung to keep up their pace and rhythm while working. ‘
While he was at it, Michael reviewed a couple of other Seven Nations releases, The Pictou Sessions and the self-titled Seven Nations. ‘There’s a reason that Seven Nations has fast become so popular, with seven independent albums under their belt and a nationwide fan following. It’s not just the fact that they spend over two-thirds of the year touring and playing. It’s because they’ve thrown rock, pop, traditional Celtic and more into a blender and hit “puree” to create something wholly unique. Their lyrics are powerful, the vocals strong, the instruments energetic.’
Michelle tells us about Get Your Breath Back, a self-released CD from a Norfolk/East Anglia dance band, Straight Furrow. ‘Musically, this is a very strong recording, with precise instrumentation and a lovely selection of tunes. From the title I was expecting mostly foot stomping jigs and reels, and maybe a piece with a caller for dancers to follow. Instead, there’s a mix of haunting airs and delicate melodies that one could imagine at a wedding processional.’
Rick had some pretty high praise for Ron Sexsmith’s Retriever. ‘There are some serious subjects broached on this album, from pity for a driver who kills a child in an accident, to the loss of dignity on reality shows, but the overall mood is happiness, which is also the title of one of the tunes. This is an uplifting album, in spite of these rather heavy themes. It leaves you with an appreciation for true love, commitment and compassion.’
Gary brings word of a new single by Norwegian guitarist and composer Trond Kallevåg. The atmospheric and cinematic tune “Fargo” is the first single from the forthcoming album Amerikabåten. ‘With its blend of noir Americana, American kitsch and cool Nordic atmosphere, “Fargo” not coincidentally sounds like it could be part of a Coen Brothers film soundtrack. Listen to it here.