Death Is A Lonely Business - Ray Bradbury (1985)

Ray Bradbury is quite simply one of the best writers to work in the latter half of the twentieth century. He has written in a number of fields and genres and has at least one authentic classic to his name that transcends genre boundaries; one can not really be considered fully versed in modern American literature if one has not read Farenheit 451. He has a style which verges on the poetic without drifting over the line and becoming precious. His use of imagery is brilliant and is arguably as good as any who have ever sat before a battered manual typewriter to attempt to convey something, anything to a reader.

With Death Is A Lonely Business, Bradbury attacks the mystery novel in his own fashion. The hero, never named, is a young science fiction writer living in Venice, California and trying to start his career. Given that the novel is written in the first person, the temptation to assign it some autobiographical significance is nearly irresistable. I shall refrain from doing so, while observing that the nature of writing and the creative process of writing is a theme in the book, as well as something of a macguffin. To write about writing is something of an acid test for an author; fortunately Ray Bradbury is an exceedingly good author, which is why the excurses on the subject in Death Is A Lonely Business are still good reading. That he manages to weave them into the plot is the mark of a master.

The plot revolves around a series of deaths and dissapperances in the town. None are clearly murder, but the protagonist clearly feels that some force or agent, if not directly slaying his victims, is certainly helping them along. Our hero careens along, meeting a variety of eccentric but deeply human characters, piecing together the puzzle, while stumbling toward his own happiness.

The mystery itself is pretty good, not absolutely top notch, but pretty darn good. The characters, the imagery and the style are all first rate, though, and elevate the book well above the mundane. For Bradbury fans, the book is a must-read, of course. For those who are not, it is still well worth the time.

Overall Grade: A-


Atomic Rooster - Devil's Answer (1995)

The liner notes for this collection of Atomic Rooster tracks namecheck Vivian Stanshell (Bonzo Dog Band) and Bob Calvert (Hawkwind), although not for musical similarity but rather because Vincent Crane, the driving force behind the band also spent time in and out of sanitoria for a variety of mental health issues. Musically, Atomic Rooster has little in common with either the Bonzos or Hawkwind, but, as these tracks show, it has a lot to recommend it.

Crane and another founding Rooster, Carl Palmer (later of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) were both in The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, where Crane's work can be heard on the hit "Fire", before forming Atomic Rooster. Crane was an organ maestro and did much of the songwriting, as well as handling vocal chores. With a drummer and a guitar player (and sometimes a vocalist) to round out the lineup, they produced some dense, jazzy but very heavy music. The sound bears similarities to other organ driven heavy bands of the time, notably Uriah Heep.

The tracks on this collection were recorded between 1970 and 1981 for various BBC radio programs, so they differ from the album tracks, but are not "live" tracks in the conventional sense. And some of them are very good indeed. The hit single, "Devil's Answer" is still a powerful rocker, and the dark lyrical sensibility of "Save Me" and "Seven Lonely Streets" are haunting, packing a visceral blast of nihilism into a heavy bass groove (played by Crane's left hand) and soaring interweaving guitar and organ solos.

Fans of the seventies organ jam sound will certainly enjoy this CD, as will fans of early heavy rock - Atomic Rooster would not look out of place sitting on a shelf next to Blue Cheer, Budgie or perhaps even Vanilla Fudge.

Overall Grade: B


Värttinä at the Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis MN, January 14 2007

(This was posted as a comment to my review of the Värttinä show in Philadelphia, and the Digital Doc and I both agreed this merited its own post. -smg58)

Reviewed by Scott Tisdel

Varttina at Minneapolis, 1/14/07

Wow! What an awesome show!

First of of all, I want to thank the members of Värttinä and their management for this abbreviated U.S. tour. It is not easy (nor cheap) to schlepp nine musicians and all their gear across the Atlantic, and your efforts are much appreciated. I felt very fortunate to be able to attend the Minneapolis show, even though I had to drive 370 miles from Milwaukee, WI! (Värttinä also played Chicago the night before, which is closer, but I couldn't make that date.) I hope the members of Värttinä were happy with what they saw in Minneapolis-- A sold-out house (by my estimate, around 800), who obviously loved what they heard, and responded with great enthusiasm. Perhaps this will encourage Värttinä to plan more extensive U.S. tours in the future, perhaps to support their Lord of the Rings CD, which hopefully is in the works.

As for the actual show, I had a few minor quibbles, so I'll get those out of the way first. I was pleased to see 8 of the nine 9 current members of Värttinä on this tour. The missing member however, drummer Jaska Lukkarinen, is extremely important to the group. By far the best drummer that Värttinä has had, Lukkarinen manages to tread a fine line, providing an strong, propulsive beat, but light enough to give "space" to the acoustic instruments. His replacement was quite good (his name was announced, but I didn't catch it), but he tended towards a heavier, straight rock beat for too many of the songs. There was also a 10 minute drum solo, which was OK, but I find drum solos tedious under almost any circumstances. It did give the other members a break in the 1 hr & 45 min show, but I would have rather heard a solo guitar, accordion, or violin solo. I hope that Lukkarinen has not left the group-- His musicianship and inventiveness would be sorely missed.

Was also a bit disappointed that both Antto Varilo (guitar) and Hannu Rantanen (bass), chose not to play acoustic instruments, but electronic "imitations" of acoustic instruments. I can certainly understand this, given the long trip (and the brutality of baggage handlers!) but the sound suffered. Rantanen's bass, in particular, was boomy and indistinct.

But, as I said, these are minor quibbles in a truly wonderful show. The set list was as follows:

1) Itkin (Ilmatar)
2) Tauti (Iki)
3) Linnunmieli (Ilmatar)
4) Lumotar (Miero)
5) Eerama (Miero)
6) Maialeena (Miero)
7) Pajatus
8) Aijo (Ilmatar)

9) Drum solo
10) Vihi (Iki) (Instrumental)
11) Hoptsoi (Seleniko) (Instr.)

12) Miero (Miero)
13) Mierontie (Miero)
14) Maaria (Miero)
15) Synti (Miero)
15) Laulutytto (Vihma)
16) Riena (Miero)

17) Nahkaruoska (Iki)
18) Seelinnikoi (Seleniko)

The fact that Värttinä, in their 24th year, can still put on a great show almost entirely of new material, rather than recycled past glories, says a lot about the group. And why not?-- I believe that Miero, from 2006, is their strongest album yet. (One can read my lengthy review of Miero on Amazon.com.) Also interesting was the inclusion of one song not from any album, Pajatus. This is a fantastic song, and its abscence from the albums is puzzling. (It does, however, appear on the "Archive Live" DVD, in a concert from 2003.)

So naturally, with a program like this, I was in heaven! Värttinä is every bit as impressive live. The three "front-women" (Susan Aho, Mari Kaasinen, Joanna Virtanen) were charming, beautiful, energetic, and yes, sexy, often "acting out" the lyrics so that the meaning was clear even to an English-speaking audience. And boy, can they sing!! They were just as polished and gorgeous as they are on their studio albums. The band, too, is fantastic, with wonderful moments from everyone (I especially love Janne Lappalainen's soprano sax!). Slight differences in the songs from the studio versions were interesting: An effective "segue" between Itkin and Tauti, a new longer ending to Eerama, an abbreviated "curse section" of Aijo, and slightly different tempos occasionally (especially the faster tempo of Linnunmieli, a big improvement). It was also nice to see a couple of questions I had about Miero answered: The male singer in the song Miero, for instance, is fiddler Lassi Logren (beautiful-- I hope we hear him again), and the strange, staccato bass notes at the beginning of Synti is actually the accordion (courtesy of Markku Lepisto). The songs from Miero are full of such original touches, which of course is why they are so wonderful.

After the show, the entire band mingled with the crowd and signed CDs (the line to buy them was long!). The three women signed my copy of "Archive Live", and even graciously agreed to have my daughter take their picture. (You can find many more pictures of this concert at BritishRockisAlwaysTop.Blogspot.com). They were just as charming away from the footlights, especially considering that this was their third concert in 24 hours, with an arduous day of travel in between. All in all, a truly memorable concert experience, and one can only hope that this will not be Värttinä's last visit to the states.

Thank you Värttinä!!

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The Dufay Collective, Music For Alfonso The Wise (harmonia mundi, 2005)

Alfonso X (called "the learned," or "the wise") ruled the kingdoms of Castile and Leon in modern-day Spain from 1252-1284. His wisdom was evidently questionable in some regards, particularly where fiscal responsibility was concerned, but he took much cultural advantage in his proximity to the Arabic Moors. His kingdom's centers of learning helped re-introduce the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans to Europe, and some significant musical developments reached fertile ground on Alfonso's watch as well. The Dufay Collective, a group of scholar/performers of Medieval music, have compiled a collection of songs and tunes from thirteenth-century Spain in the hopes of re-creating the sound of Alfonso's court. Regrettably, the music that accompanied the songs of the troubadours known to have played in Alfonso's court is lost to history, so in a few instances the Collective took existing lyrics from these troubadours and set them to other melodies from that period. Despite focusing on a very specific region of Medieval Europe, the material performed on Music For Alfonso The Wise is a strand of a common thread that interwove the Spanish court with all the regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, and whose roots continue to branch out and spread 750 years later.

The instruments used by the Dufay Collective combine European and Arabic traditions. Lead instruments like the psaltery (an early harp) and the vielle (a primitive violin with a characteristically scraping tone) are played over plucked-string rhythm instruments like the oud, rebab, and saz. The first thing that struck me about the disc is how much of the music sounds very similar to modern Balkan music. I'm guessing that as the Muslim influence remained prevalent in the Balkan region for significantly longer than it did in the rest of Europe, current Balkan folk music has kept closer to its form in the Middle Ages. On some tracks, though, the aggressive plucking clearly shows the early evolution of what became flamenco. Of course, the development of flamenco coincides with the Spanish transformation of the Arab stringed instruments into the modern guitar, whose impact on folk music traditions throughout the world in the last few centuries defies any sort of calculation.

The material on Music For Alfonso The Wise comes from two primary sources. The first, Cantigas de Santa Maria, is a collection of odes to the mother of Jesus that was commisioned by Alfonso himself. The second is the earliest known example of a song cycle, Cantigas de amigo by Martin Codax. This album boasts a number of strong and intriguing tracks. "Ontre todalas" begins with minor-key fiddling with a the kind of droning harmony that wouldn't sound out of place in northern European folk tunes, yet when the percussion kicks in is sounds well suited for a belly dance. The combination of "Tant aos peccadores" and "Todo los Santos" would hold its own among modern folk dance recordings. "Quen a Virgen" alternates between the kind of very complex rhythm still prevalent in eastern European folk tunes and the 6/8 rhythm that inspired the modern jig. The plucked strings and percussive handclaps of "Martin jorgar" very obviously bring flamenco to mind. The trembling fiddle on "Non soffre Santa Maria" evokes Hungarian folk music; indeed, this piece would have sounded perfectly in place at Golden Festival.

More than anything else, Music For Alfonso The Wise works for me because I can hear the echoes of so much modern music in the arrangements. Now granted, The Dufay Collective have obviously heard their share of modern music, and its influence may very well have colored their interpretations of the Medieval music they perform here. Yet the melodies are all authentic, and the choice of instrumentation is consistent with the time and place. Music For Alfonso The Wise is an enjoyable and highly fascinating voyage to a part of our distant, but intriguingly not so different, musical past.

Overall grade: A-

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TomPetty- Damn the Torpedoes (1979)

I always think it's fun to look back on familiar artists to their earlier, and lesser known work. In many cases, these tracks are better off forgotten, but sometimes we can find the roots of later sounds. While I am old enough to have been listening to albums when this vinyl album debuted, I only listened to it quite recently. I've been listening to Tom Petty since Scott put on "Full Moon Fever" in 1989. It still stands today as one of the best rock albums made in my opinion.

When I found Damn the Torpedoes, I recognized some of the other tracks, like "Refugee," and "Even the Losers" from a Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers greatest hits album. However, the rest I have not heard before. In fact, there were several well known popular songs that I wasn't sure if this was a greatest hits album. However, it's not, as it is the third Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album, and this historically was the one that put them on the map.

A late '70's album, it surprisingly doesn't sound dated as well. Damn the Torpedoes is Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's third album. It is a mix of solid classic rock, with a pinch of Southern rock, with two pinches of punk rock. Here's the tracklist:

Here Comes My Girl
Even The Losers
Shadow Of A Doubt (A Complex Kid)
Century City
Don't Do Me Like That
You Tell Me
What Are You Doin' In My Life?
Louisiana Rain

To my ear, out of these tracks, there really isn't a bad song in the mix. Even the stuff that would have been on the B-side of the vinyl record (remember those?) still aged well through the years. What results is a classic American rock album that bridges the gap between late 70's, but avoids the artificial electronics that took over during the '80's. Even well known tracks have a few surprises, like that the original version of "Even the Losers" started with a drum solo, and not as the cleaned up version that we've heard on the radio.

This is the best album I've heard in quite some time, hence why I finally have a music review to contribute. Ok, I'll go back to reading books now...

Overall Grade: A+
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Star of the Unborn (1946)

Franz Werfel's novel Der Stern Der Ungeborenen (trans. as Star of the Unborn) is something of a throwback. Hailed by some as a "visionary" novel or a "science-fiction classic," in fact, it is neither. It is a something of a medieval morality tale, having more in common with Everyman than 1984 or Brave New World. The plot is transparently thin; our hero, named F.W. and writing in the first person throughout, delivers what he calls a travelogue through time to the Eleventh Cosmic Capital Year of Virgo, an unspecified time 100,000 years or so in the future. There he sees the sights, meets archetypes and is present at several "historic" events, if the term may be used.

The format is a time honoured one, if a bit archaic; Werfel himself makes the obvious comparison to Dante's Inferno. The prose, originally in German, is dense in translation and laden with classical allusion and sprinkled with bits of Latin and Greek, as well as a few original psuedo-Classical coinages. At times, the style can be plodding, but at other times it reaches rather impressive heights of lyricism.

Stylistically dated, freighted with classicisms and dense prose, and taking a medieval structure, one might expect the book to be awful. However, it is actually quite fine. I would not consider it a classic, nor would I consider it science-fiction precisely, but as a philosophical meditation on the place of man and his institutions in the universe and his relationship with God it works pretty well. Werfel clearly wrestled with issues of evil and religion, unsurprising for a German speaking Czech Jew who fled Austria to avoid the Nazis, and those issues permeate the book.

Ultimately, the book is an interesting travelogue, not though the sites of the Eleventh Cosmic Capital Year of Virgo but through the mind of Franz Werfel himself.

Overall Grade: C+/B-


Värttinä at the Perelman Theater, Philadelphia PA, January 18 2007

It's been nearly twelve years since the album Aitara, by the Finnish band Värttinä, played over the speakers between the sets of a show at Central Park Summerstage I was attending. All sorts of ramifications have followed. Regrettably, their current tour of the United States includes no public shows in New York City, just a stop at the Finnish Embassy and a performance to be filmed for Link TV. The closest venue where I could see them perform, therefore, was the Perelman Theater inside the Kimmel Center in downtown Philadelphia, on a weeknight no less. That would mean leaving work in Manhattan at 4 to get to the show by 7:30, followed by a 10:30 Amtrak back to New York and another train out to Ronkonkoma, getting me home around 2 in the morning. Could it possibly be worth the aggravation and expense? In a word, yes.

The Perelman Theater is very nicely designed, both visually and acoustically. Whoever was responsible for publicizing the show really didn't reach the right audience, however, as the place was maybe a third full. A large number of seats in front of mine were empty, even though tickets for them had to have been sold. I'm guessing the theater sells season passes, but most of the shows there are classical, and the classical audience largely stayed home for this one. Oh well, there was more elbow room for the handful of die-hard fans who made up for their lack of numbers with their enthusiasm, and I had no difficulty abandoning my original seat in row L for one right up front.

Any description of a Värttinä performance has to start with the three women up front, singers Mari Kaasinen, Susan Aho, and Johanna Virtanen. The trio not only sing the songs, but generally act them out as well and do some sort of choreographed routine to each song. The sex appeal is obvious, but the singers succeed on many deeper levels than that too. Most of their singing style is rooted in the musical traditions of Karelia, the region in eastern Finland and northwest Russia which produced the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic poem. Their affinity for rapid-fire, highly alliterative singing in harmonies that generally emphasize seconds instead of the more conventional thirds and fifths started on the earliest Värttinä recordings and continues on their most recent release Miero, and was very evident in their performance last night. The women successfully convey the humor in much of their lyrics to the audience, despite the obvious language barrier. They are also not afraid to sing songs reflecting the dark, sinister side of Finnish folklore, and to make the vocals dissonant and ugly when a song calls for that. For this show at least, Susan Aho seemed to be the sparkplug for both the rest of the band and the audience, bringing a particularly infectious amount of energy and enthusiasm to he singing and movement across the stage. The band's six instrument players likewise are a potent force in their own right. Not only do they continue to effortlessly handle a variety of speeds, tempos, and rhythms, but they just keep getting tighter as a unit, and the sound they create just roars off the stage.

As usual, there were plenty of highlights. The show opened with "Itkin," the first song of Värttinä's 2000 CD Ilmatar. Dark and eerie, this song reflects the primal, folkloric influences in the band's sound. The combination of complex Balkan-inspired rhythms with urgent vocals shows up on every Värttinä album at least once, and "Tauti" (off 2003's iki) and "Lumotar" (off Miero) got the audience going early in the set. The joyous dance number Yötulet, my favorite of many stand-out tracks on Aitara, got the best live treatment from the band that I've heard to date. "Äijö," a song off Ilmatar about a hermit driven mad by a snake bite who casts a spell to purge the venom from his system, is very popular among the band's fans. While it impressed the producers of the theatrical version of The Lord Of The Rings so much that they hired Värttinä to compose some of the music for the play, "Äijö" is not for the squeamish, and I got the sense from the relatively tentative audience response that a few people didn't really know what to make of it. Personally, I thought Värttinä captured the demented frenzy of the song just right, especially Johanna Virtanen's insidious laughter during the spell-casting portion of the song. "Riena," another frantic and sometimes dissonant number, leads off Miero but closed the main part of the set. Complete with a blood-curdling shriek from Aho that blew away the intro on the recorded version, it proved that the newer material stands up well to the older material.

Given that I'd been to a concert in Manhattan on Wednesday night (I hope to get a review of that up soon) and had to make a series of train connections on my way to Philadelphia and back, I really had no time to get psyched up for this show. It had also been more than three years since I'd seen Värttinä, so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. And yet, I wound up sitting up front with the same big childish grin on my face that I always get at their shows. Some things never change, I guess. I hadn't really forgotten that I consider Värttinä to be the best band currently gracing the planet, or why I feel that way, but the reminder was greatly appreciated.
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Zlatne Uste Golden Festival, Good Shepherd School, Inwood NY, January 13 2007

For the seventh straight year, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Zlatne Uste Golden Festival, held once again at the Good Shepherd School in Inwood on the northern tip of Manhattan. I've already described the Festival in detail twice, first in 2003 and then again for this blog last year, so I'll refer you to those articles for a sense of what the show is like and what kind of performers play at it. The Festival has been and continues to be the best party in town, but most aspects of its presentation remain fairly constant year to year. Something was different about this year's Festival though, to a degree that was impossible for any regular attendee to overlook: it was really crowded. Granted, some of the increase in attendance may have resulted from the unusually warm January weather we've been experiencing in the New York area, but I get the feeling that there's a deeper explanation than that.

There's a real scene for Balkan folk music in New York City, and not just to listen to it. I go to the Nordic Roots Festival in Minneapolis every year because there are a lot of exciting young performers doing creative things with traditional Scandinavian music, but all those performers are based in Scandinavia. Golden Festival has largely become a showcase for a lot of exciting young performers doing creative things with traditional Balkan and Mediterranean music, but most of these performers live in the five boroughs and the surrounding area. Some of them, like the amazing percussionist Raquy Danziger and her band Raquy and the Cavemen, came to my attention specifically because of the festival. However, a lot of the local Balkan groups have steadily built a local base through word of mouth and making contacts. Romashka, a furiously upbeat party band specializing in gypsy music, first came to my attention when their singer Inna Barmash e-mailed me out of the blue because she had read my review of the sadly defunct club Satalla on Green Man Review and was looking for people to write about the band. I made a trek down to a bar in Brooklyn one night to see them play, and I was hooked. I found out about Luminescent Orchestrii (not present as a band at this year's festival, but represented by at least two of their members playing with other groups) because somebody at the Makor correctly thought they'd make a worthy opening act for the mighty Warsaw Village Band when they played there last year. Ljova's work has been heard by fans of performers as diverse as Yo-Yo Ma and Jay-Z. He's also very accessible personally. I saw him on the stairs heading up to the main floor, and he wished me a "Happy Golden Fest" like it was a major holiday. I hadn't realized, until speaking with him there, that I had written the first review of his debut CD for The Armchair Critic. I consider that an honor.

If the size and enthusiasm of the audience were any indication, the efforts of these performers to publicize their music are starting to pay dividends. As well as the Good Shepherd School has served as the host of the Golden Festival over the past few years, I'm a little bit concerned that it won't be big enough to handle further increases in attendance. Still, I can't imagine that host band Zlatne Uste are anything but thrilled at what the festival they started twenty-one years ago as a benefit for Balkan relief efforts has grown into. (By the way, you might have some trouble accessing the Zlatne Uste and Golden Festival websites for a while. They have exceeded their traffic allotment for the month.)

Golden Festival includes many non-Balkan styles as well, and here is the NY Spelmanslag playing Swedish music. (You only see half of me playing the 12-string guitar, but it was the best group shot I had.) We play Wednesday nights dowtown for Scandia NY. We're not quite at the same level of musicianship as a lot of the other Golden Fest bands, but we do more than all right for amateurs, and we generally please our target audience.

Inna Barmash fronts Romashka on the main stage.

The host band Zlatne Uste never fails to draw a large crowd to the main floor, but the crowd was especially large this year.

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Just Friends (2005)

Just Friends is a romantic comedy that takes a silly look back at high school life, and how moving on can be hard sometimes. Ryan Reynolds plays Chris Brander, the 300 pound high school kid that everyone made fun of. At a graduation party, he leaves town amid the laughs of his entire class. Fast forward a decade, and now he’s a fancy Hollywood record producer. He doesn’t want to look back, and enjoys the companies of celebrities and models.

An impromptu high school reunion lands him back home. He then stumbles upon his old sweetheart, Jamie played by Amy Smart. She made the mistake of keeping him in “the friend’s zone” last time and not taking him seriously, but will she do it again? Those of you thinking that this theme sounds like so many other films out there will now visualize me nodding back at you!

At least for me, Just Friends is a tad too slapstick and silly for me. Scene after scene feature Reynolds acting like he’s all grown up, only to have him relive some zany high school moment. There are simply too many falls in the snow and ice than should be in any one film, probably more than even a trilogy can absorb. Most of them are not that funny, and result in more injury than laughs for all concerned. While there are some redeeming moments, I’m not sure Just Friends is worth enduring for them.

Overall Grade: C+
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Burn Factor (2001)

Burn Factor is an edge of your seat thriller of a novel from the author, Kyle Mills. In fact, it is his debut novel. It features a new heroine, Quinn Barry as the principal character. She is an FBI computer specialist that has aspirations of becoming an agent one day. When she is attempting to rewrite a search program for the CODIS genetic database, she stumbles upon a link between some cases that haven’t been previously connected (the computer part was what drew me in…). The novel then portrays a series of characters and situations that cause her concern if she can trust anyone as attempts are made to make sure she is silent.

Mills uses the technique that is featured in the DaVinci Code, and other Dan Brown novels, where there are very short chapters, each ending with a kind of mini cliffhanger that keeps the reader constantly turning to the next page. Also, the plot unfolds from both the standpoint of our heroine, and the evildoers simultaneously, as the short chapter’s trade back and forth. What results is a story that can hold its own even in our society of minimal attention span and instant message communication.

A word of caution though. Several parts of Burn Factor are especially graphic as we follow a serial rapist and murderer. It’s kind of like the uncut version of CSI, but parts of it are more than a little disturbing to me. I wonder what kind of normal minded individual could write such violence with such an attention to detail (a little research on the author's website reveals that his father was an FBI Agent which may explain this).

Burn Factor is an excellently written thriller. It is one of those novels that are hard to put down once started. This is the first Kyle Mills novel I have read, and I plan to read more of this author.

Overall Grade: B+

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America's War On Sex: The Attack On Law, Lust and Liberty by Marty Klein

What aspects of sex are under assault in America? Who is behind these attacks? And what are the ramifications for the rights and atmosphere of America? These are some issues raised in Marty Klein's AMERICA'S WAR ON SEX, an exploration of the current movements to ban or limit sexuality in America.

According to Klein, the main culprits for this war are erotophobes ("those who fear and hate sexuality"), mainly represented by the religious right, the govermnent willing to pander to the religious right, and news media eager for salacious, conflict-driven stories. The targets in this war are everything: sex education, reproductive rights, television, the Internet, adult entertainment, even adult lifestyles. The techniques used on the war all involve fear and often blatant misinformation.

And the damage done isn't simply to pornographers or smut peddlers, Klein says, but to the rights of all Americans. He says that these attacks hurt children by giving them misinformation (such as abstinence-only programs supported by unverified exaggerations of the unreliability of condoms), remove Americans' right to choose what they buy or what they do, and move America further towards theocracies like Iran than towards the nation founded on each person's right to decide and act for themselves. This war also stifles public discussion, as fears of censorship and indecency lead to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and SCHIDLER'S LIST not being shown on network television since stations couldn't be sure they wouldn't be fined for indency.

The main strength of AMERICA'S WAR ON SEX is Klein's extensive support of his arguments. He documents and references numerous elements of this attack on sexuality, from the millions spent by the government on programs that don't work to the legal cases prosecuting people for exploring their sexuality legally. Klein tries to be neutral -- he's not promoting promiscuity, but rather people's right to pursue their sexuality -- but his outrage flows with his words.

I would have liked AMERICA'S WAR ON SEX more if Klein had provided more of a historical background to this war. He is so busy exploring the current battle that he provides little historical context for when this battle began or how it has been pursued to the current day. (An excellent exception: When discussing the Internet, he illustrated how the growth and attack of sexuality online mirrors that of many technologies.) Klein can quickly dismiss anything he disagrees without without support (like the Amber Alert system or the current sexual harassment laws), and he even adpots the "sympathetic story"technique, which he criticizes as emotional but meaningless support for porn addiction, to support his case of discrimination based on sexual lifestyle. And for all the details Kelin provides on the assaults on our rights, he provides few solutions, such as organizations fighting censorship or ways for voters to let the government know where they stand.

AMERICA'S WAR ON SEX is a frightening look at the attacks on sexuality happening today in America. This book may be a little too focused on the present a the cost of the background to this war, but Marty Klein does an excellent job of reporting how sexuality is under attack -- and what the stakes of losing are for everyone.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch


Invincible (2006)

No, there's never been any shortage of "stand up and cheer" football movies. Invincible, starring Mark Wahlberg, attempts a fresh take on this well repeated classic formula. This time it incorporates the real life saga of Vincent Papale, and takes us to the archives of 1975 football when a new NFL coach decides to hold open field tryouts! Papale is a very "down on his luck" bartender who tries out for the team. Faster than we can say "Hike," Papale is at the Philadelphia Eagle's training camp! As he barely keeps his "head above water," the rest of the team does not share this newcomer's enthusiasm, and would be more than pleased to send him packing back from whence he came. Along the way, his buddies from the ol' neighborhood bar in South Philly provide some much needed encouragement. The setting is well created with an entire fleet of mid-70's autos, and also used many relevant songs of the era, including such artists as Jim Croce, and Bachman Turner Overdrive. While Invincible is predictable with a lower case "p," it is still quite enjoyable. I recommend it even to those who are not die hard football aficionados as it is a story worth watching.

Overall Grade: B+

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The Corps

After enjoying the nine part Brotherhood of War by W.E.B. Griffin, I'm now going to review the ten part series on The Corps. I'm planning on reviewing each novel, but keeping it together in one post, by adding them in. This series of novels follows the story of the Marine Corps through the Pacific theater of World War II.

Semper Fi

This is the first novel of the series. We start in Shanghai, China where the Marines are deployed, and engage in reconnaissance of the Japanese in the nearby area. The principal character is James McCoy, an enlisted man. We learn of his spying activities, and how he reluctantly ends up going through Officer Candidate School, to become a 2nd Lieutenant. He then gets assigned to the Intelligence division Semper Fi finishes with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Griffin cleverly puts McCoy in the aftermath of Pearl, and then in the Phillipines.

This is a very well done novel. The history is all spot on. The writing is succint, and flows. The only criticism I can give Semper Fi is that once it is started, it's addictive, and impossible to put down.

Grade: A+

Call To Arms

This second installment develops the series further along the theme of the Marine Raiders. Not to be confused with the football team, these Raiders were an almost forgotten attempt at a Special Forces unit during World War II. If you've never heard of them, you're hardly alone as the author goes through some of the actual history in the preface.

As the Marines are already thought of as an elite unit, the idea of an elite within an elite was quite controversial back in the day. Call To Arms explores some of this controversy. This is done by having now Second Lieutenant Ken McCoy getting assigned to the intelligence division, and then reassigned to the forming Raider division. The novel concludes with a Raider attack on Makin Island which displayed a lot of the weaknesses of the new division and tactics. It was done more for psychological value than true strategic importance against the Japanese.

In the meantime, McCoy's wealthy best buddy, Pick Pickering, ends up in Naval Aviator school in Pensacola, Florida. He also starts to get involved with a widowed Admiral's daughter.

Along the journey, Griffin manages to interweave in some details about the history of the M1 carbine, also known as the Garand.

I was a little disappointed that the story of Wake Island, "The Alamo of the Pacific," got rather glossed over. That said, the rest of the novel is well done, and the interweaving of the characters among the history is masterfully done.

Grade: A


This third part of the saga continues a number of the plot lines from the previous two novels, with its formidable cast of over a dozen main characters. There is one notable exception though- the main character from the last two books, "Killer" McCoy only gets a passing mention or two. Also notable is that we move back in time to Pearl Harbor and Wake Island, now seen through different perspectives.

There is A LOT going on throughout this work. In my opinion, there are two main plot lines in Counterattack.

The first involves Fleming Pickering. He is the father of Pick Pickering that was a room mate, and good buddy of McCoy. He is a fascinating character that was a Marine Corporal during WW I. Also notably, he is a master ship captain, and owns a shipping fleet. While he would certainly contribute to the war effort with his ships, he decides to support the war by reenlisting. What follows is an almost comical look at military politics as he tries to get into another service than where he would be obviously most qualified- the Navy. He ends up, with his considerable political and financial influence becoming a special aid to the Secretary of the Navy. Through a series of letters, we are given insight into General MacArthur, and the military interservice squabbling in the Pacific during WW II.

As if the preceding wasn't enough for one novel, there is a second major plotline that intertwines eventually. This focuses on what were called Coastwatchers. These were civilians on nearby islands that were monitoring the Japanese buildup for a possible invasion of the Japanese into Australia. This is better known in the history books as the Solomon Islands. WW II buffs will know that this culminates in the poorly planned US Marine assault on Gaudalcanal, and Griffin takes us there too.

Counterattack is another well planned and written novel in the series. Lest you think this is all about war, there's a lot of Americana and rich nostalgic touches that interweave to form a unique tapestry. Griffin succeeds at bringing us history in a personal and involving way.

Grade: A-


Here's two World War II facts:

#1- The Americans had broken the Japanese radio transmission codes.

#2- The Japanese southern expansion was stopped at the Solomon Islands, thereby preventing them from taking over Australia and New Zealand.

While many of us will remember these facts from our history lessons, WEB Griffin is able to weave them into his tale of historic proportions in Battleground, the fourth part of The Corps. It is this weaving of facts among the fictitious characters that make Battleground a real page turner. Also, in typical Griffin fashion, this novel chronologically starts somewhere in the middle of part three. With a new character that eventually gets integrated in, we see the events around Guadalcanal from a different perspective.

About two-third's of Battleground follows Sergeant Moore's path from his initial entry into the Corps, to Guadalcanal. Along the way we learn the value of Japanese language translators, and the importance of intercepting and decoding Japanese radio messages.

The remainder, aside from the Battle of Midway, concerns itself with General MacArthur and his so called court. The author, by cleverly embedding Captain Flem Pickering with them reveals to us an apocryphal look at the inner circle. We also see how there was downright friction between MacArthur, and Admiral Nimitz, the two logistical leaders of the war in the Pacific as the old Army-Navy rivalry plays out.

Overall, Battleground is one of the stronger novels in The Corps series. My only real criticism is that by focusing on newer characters, some of the older crew, like McCoy make only a cameo appearance. No matter though, as we've got several more novels to go in The Corps to get everyone back involved.

Grade: A

Line of Fire

Line of Fire is the fifth part of the epic Corps series. Our storyline can be divided into three segments.

The first is the introduction of Private Hart (as if we needed another character in this...). He in intriguing because we learn he is a police detective that enlists for the "Marine police" to avoid being drafted into the Army infantry. The only hitch in his plan is that there are no "Marine police" and he ends up having major problems in boot camp. Before too long though, he gets integrated into the rest of the storyline.

The second part involves the senior Pickering. Not content being a reserve Navy Captain, he gets recommissioned as a Marine General. While this is somewhat incredulous, I suspect that it is important to keep him in the developing plot. It also is entertaining as he heads his own "royal court" and the rest now have to cater to his every whim and need.

This leaves us with the third and most significant part of the storyline. The two Marines that got abandoned on Buka, a Japanese held part of the Solomon Islands to operate a radio outpost attempt to be rescued. True to their motto, "no man left behind" a high risk operation, using unconventional tactics gets planned and executed. It is exceedingly well plotted, and I only wonder how much of it is true, because it is an exceptional tale.

What's also nice about The Line of Fire is that all the major charcters get involved. My criticism of the last novel, or two, is no longer valid. This novel is a well integrated and executed advancement of the story of The Corp. Wow, at least we're halfway done with the series!

Grade: A

Close Combat

In Close Combat, the sixth installment of The Corps series, Griffin advances the plot, ties up some loose ends, promotes more than a few Marines, and sets the stage for the later books.

Much of the story follows the path of Corporal "Easterbunny" Easterbrook. Apparently, he left his Coppertone on Paris Island to earn his nickname. He gets interweaved among the Guadalcanal story as a combat correspondent. As he only had the bare minimum of prewar reporter experience, he gets a lot of on the job training, and grows up fast. He ends up getting assigned to Major Jake Dillon's team that provides footage for newsreels.

The other main storyline of Close Combat is a War Bond tour. This featured military heros touring the US in an attempt to raise money for the war effort. Apparently, it also boosted the recruiting and enlisting effort as well. While a bond tour may sound a little out of place given the book's title, it works well to juxtapose a group of characters. It also allows Griffin to write about the US during the height of the war with more than a little hint of nostalgia.

Close Combat works very well as a middle novel of this series.

Grade: A

Behind the Lines

See our review here.

In Danger's Path

See our review here.

Under Fire

See our review here.

Retreat, Hell!

See our review here.

Overall Grade: A+

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American Dreamz (2006)

American Dreamz is one of the more ambitious spoof efforts I've seen in some time. One part is based around mocking the already rather ridiculous and way overhyped American Idol competition. The other part gets based a likeness of George W. Bush who gets manipulated by his wife, and Vice President (wait a second here, maybe this part is more real than not...). At any rate, the storylines intermingle in a quite ridiculous fashion that really makes no sense at many points of the film. In a final analysis, there is enough humor for a few short Saturday Night Live skits. The bit about shooting the terrorist training camp video was very funny. After that segment, it was all downhill, and steeply so, with the laughs less and less frequent until they’re nonexistent. With almost no plot, and minimal humor, I'm recommending you pass this one by, big time.

Overall Grade: D

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The Beatles, Love (Apple, 2006)

George Harrison and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté were close friends, stemming from their mutual interest in motor racing. At some point they discussed the possibility of putting on a Cirque du Soleil production choreographed to the music of The Beatles, beginning the process that eventually led to the premiere of the show Love in June 2006 at the Mirage in Las Vegas. Dominic Champagne was brought in to direct the show, and naturally, Beatles' producer George Martin was asked to oversee the music. Told to assemble an hour and a half of sounds from whatever Beatles recordings he felt were appropriate, and encouraged to be as experimental as he could, Martin recruited his son Giles to help him dive through the most legendary, important, and valuable master recordings on the planet and create the right combination of songs -- or the right combination of combinations of songs -- to fit the stage show. As Giles Martin describes in the liner notes to the soundtrack CD of Love, it felt at times like he was "painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa."

Love consists of 26 tracks, all altered in some way from the original recordings. Some songs are simply remixed, some have either the vocal or the instrumental tracks isolated, and some are sped up or slowed down to tie in with other recordings. The only new recording is an orchestral arrangement scored by George Martin to accompany the acoustic demo version of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" that was first released on The Beatles Anthology Vol. 3. A few of the alterations are particularly inspired, most notably the combination of George's vocal on "Within You Without You" with Ringo's drum track on "Tomorrow Never Knows," and the guitar track on "Blackbird" slowed down to lead perfectly into "Yesterday." Unfortunately, no video footage of the actual show is included, making it difficult to place the songs in any sort of context.

Is Love an essential addition to the Beatles' canon? No, not really. Like the Anthology sets, it provides some insights into how The Beatles worked in the studio. The different takes on the originally released material will generate considerable interest among the band's fans, especially the many completists who have to have everything, and should meet with the general approval of most of them. But like the Anthology sets, the novelty and curiosity will wear off after a few listens. Love has some fun moments, but I'm still going to go back to the original albums when I need a Beatles fix.

Overall grade: B

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The Californian

While it's hard for me to decide which CDs were the best of 2006, THE CALIFORNIAN by Bob Schneider was easily the worst. I listened to this album while driving, and it was a feat of will for me not to see if there was anything good on the radio instead of continuing through this album.

I absolutely loved Bob Schneider's album I'M GOOD NOW, which showed Schneider effortlessly switching between ballads, hard rock, and pop while keeping catchy, thoughtful lyrics through the styles. With THE CALIFORNIAN, he opted for loud, followed by loud, with a side of loud. Most of the songs are shouted rather than sung, and the best song ("Flowerparts") barely qualifies as decent. The only song that stands out is "The Song of Ralph," and that is not an improvement: It's a crude drinking song sung off key by people who sound, and probably are, wasted.

I got THE CALIFORNIAN during the closing days of Tower Records. It was at a substantial discount, and I still feel ripped off. Trust me: Buy I'M GOOD NOW and pretend THE CALIFORNIAN never happened.

Overall Grade: F

Reviewed by James Lynch

Benchwarmers (2006)

What would we get if we added Revenge of the Nerds to The Bad News Bears and mixed? I suppose the answer would be Benchwarmers, but unfortunately only the stupid parts of each film got combined into the final product. The premise is that three adults, who never got to play baseball in their youth, get a second chance at America's favorite game. These three oldsters have literally nothing better to do than play little league baseball teams. A round robin tournament gets organized by a well meaning benefactor of the adults against the kids and Benchwarmers plods on.

To me, the only "highlight" of the film (and a very minimal one at that) is the cameo appearance of the KITT Trans Am from the 80's TV show "Knight Rider." As for the rest, watching the movie trailer of Benchwarmers is truly more than I needed to see. Seriously, who really wants to see a mix of "has beens" and "never were" adults beating up on a bunch of bratty kids? Don't say you weren't warned about this one.

Overall Grade: D+

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