Mairead Nesbitt and April Verch: Two for St. Patrick's Day

Celtic Commotion for St. Patrick's Day

Well we must have some Celtic music for St. Paddy's Day, to be sure, to be sure. Here are two new releases.

"Hallowed Fire" unfolds to woodwinds, pulsing strings, harp notes, swooping instrumentation, and the polished conducting of a symphony orchestra. Then come the lead strings of Máiréad Nesbitt—mournful, precise, and controlled, as she makes her way through a slow Irish-themed tune. This is the flavor of Hibernia (Cosmic Trigger). If Nesbitt's name doesn't immediately resonate, think of Michael Flatley's "Lord of the Dance" or "Feet of Flames" dance extravaganzas, or of Celtic Woman, whose videotaped performances are a staple of PBS fundraisers. Nesbitt is the slit-gowned blonde who likes to kick off her high-heels and flash a lot of leg in ways simultaneously suggestive and innocent.
            I generally hate the kind of stuff Scotland's Dick Gaughan calls "tarted up tourist kitsch," but I really liked this album—probably because the act of listening transported me beyond the faux glamour. At least Ms. Nesbitt's light classical approach is honest; she studied under none less than the late Emanuel Hurwitz (1919-2006), so call this album Celtic music in its formal clothes. As befits her training, Nesbitt immerses herself within circumscribed compositions and eschews instant variations and spur-of-the-moment grace notes. Fast-paced numbers such as "Becoming" are fiery, yet disciplined; "TheButterfly" flits, but as in a netted conservatory. "The First Sheaf" is pastoral—in both rural and idealized form, just as the well-known "Merrily Kiss the Quaker," a West Kerry slide, is lively, but decorous. The latter suggests why Nesbitt's formalism works. The notion of kissing an 18th century Quaker was, depending on the context, either a rebellious act, a violation, or an insider's joke–the Quaker being a symbol of reserve and outward piety. Ms Nesbitt's arrangement captures these contradictions. Okay, so tunes such as "The Dusk" or "Captain H" sound more like something one would hear at a formal ball than on the village green, but there's no quarreling with Ms. Nesbitt's talent. I still prefer the spontaneity and wildness of unconstrained Celtic, but it's fun to dress up now and then.

It seems like just yesterday when April Verch was a 14-year-old fiddle prodigy who ventured out of her native Ottawa Valley and showed up at a few folk festivals. She's 38 now and has ten CDs under her step dance shoes. Her eleventh is titled The April Verch Anthology (Slab Town Records), an eighteen-track culling of releases from 1998 to 2015. Although it excludes material from her two earliest recordings, Anthology does kick off with "Trip to Windsor," when Verch was still a fresh-faced country girl sawing away at a tune with precocious skill, youthful energy, and rough-around-the-edges tones. It's also a textbook case of how Celtic music in Canada is different—simultaneously more rustic in feel, but also played in ways that predate Victorian era embellishment.           
            As a Canadian dancer and fiddler, Verch immediately drew comparisons to Natalie MacMaster, but when she started singing in sweet, high tones, those comparisons shifted to Alison Krauss. Neither is apt. If you must make an analogy, a lot of her repertoire and approach is that of barn dance albums in country music's pre-slick days. Some of it feels as if it were a 1930s anticipation of A Prairie Home Companion—wholesome, spare, and rootsy. Verch's are, however, deep and long roots that stretch from Celtic lands to the Ottawa Valley and into the Southern U.S. Appalachians. "He's Holding On To Me" is bluegrass gospel, while "Jump Cricket Jump" sounds like one of those old John Hartford raw fiddle tune/songs that evoke the subject without being onomatopoetic. There are tear-jerker country songs such as "It Makes No Difference to Me," old-timey selections such as "That's How We Run," and vulnerable folk offerings the likes of "Long Way Home." We also hear Verch's growth as a performer. Contrast the opening track with "The Newpart" (2015). In the latter, Verch heads her own band, with flat-picked guitar laying down a framework for fiddle that swells to a repeated and memorable theme worthy of Jay Ungar. When she sings, it's with the slightly nasal and true-to-her-wellspring country tones that deliberately avoid the smooth polish of Alison Krauss. About that wellspring—its waters are the coming together of French-Canadian, Métis, and Celtic. Call Ms. Verch the real/reel deal.


In a Dark, Dark Wood a Page-Turning Thriller

IN A DARK, DARK WOOD (2015/16)
Ruth Ware
Simon & Schuster, 310 pp.

English writer Ruth Ware's debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, draws comparisons to Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and Paula Hawkins (The Girl of the Train). Both are apt, if by those analogies, we mean the creepy undertones of Flynn and the inner psychological torment of Hawkins. Ware's novel is a thrilling and skin-crawling read–one I tore through in just two nights.

This surprised me, as the book's set-up is one that would have normally sent me running the other way. Its central character is twenty-six-year-old Leonora Shaw ("Nora"), a London writer with few friends and a loner lifestyle that suits her just fine. Out of the blue she gets an email inviting her to take part in a "hen" party–the British term for a bachelorette gathering–for Clare Cavendish. Clare had been a close friend from childhood, but Nora's literally not had contact with her for ten years. Her first impulse is to delete the email, but her only really close friend Nina, a lanky Brazilian doctor, got a similar email. Neither wishes to go, but the email's sender and event organizer, Flo, insists that Clare would be devastated if they didn't accept. So Nora and Nina decide to give it a shot.

What ensues is like something out of Agatha Christie, except the creepy house in this case is a sterile glass-sided modernist mistake plopped down in a rural section of Northumberland at the end of a rutted lane and so hemmed in by trees that's there's no Internet or cell phone coverage. Nora and Nina are among a select few guests, the others being Tom, a gay actor/director; Melanie, a neurotic new mother; and Flo, the hen party organizer equivalent of a Bridezilla. Flo declares herself Clare's best friend, but she's also obviously a few bubbles off plumb and so fragile that each aspect of the party must go off exactly as she envisions it, lest sturm und drang wash away the house and all in it. For her part, Clare seems as haughty and privileged as Nora and Nina remembered.

So what do you do? Nora and Nina are freaked out–the house has no curtains, for heaven's sake–but is this just the paranoia that city slickers often feel when they go into the country? No one else is very comfortable either, but wouldn't you just tell yourself, "Hey, it's just 48 hours," and suck it up? Bad idea!

Ware serves up a taut mystery that involves many twists, including a deft use of a dramatic trope known as Chekhov's gun. There's also suspicion run wild, old wounds reopened, obsession, accidents, amnesia, and maybe some pigeons (clay and human) set up for a fall. Much like the character Rachel in The Girl in the Train, poor Nora is pushed into such a state that she can't access or trust her own memories. And she's not the only one. In a Dark, Dark Wood is a clichéd title, but it's also a satisfying page-turner. I'll say no more, except to offer this advice: If you find yourself in a creepy setting, it's a terrible idea to mess with a Ouija board.

Rob Weir


Gunmetal Gray Too Much of a Stretch Even for a Spy Novel

By Mark Greaney
Berkley/Penguin, 505 pages

Freelance assassin Court Gentry is up to his old tricks, this time in Asia. Whether or not that's a good thing is up to the public to decide, but this reviewer is ready to have Gentry retire to a sunny island.

If author Mark Greaney's name doesn't ring immediate bells, think of Tom Clancy, who died in 2013. Greaney co-authored seven of Clancy's novels, two of which when Clancy was mortally ill and five that appeared (or will) posthumously. Greaney also worked on his own Gray Man series, the first installment of which was published in 2009. Gentry is the Gray Man, so known for his ability to do his deadly work in the shadows and, usually, off shore and off anyone's official books. He is such an efficient killer and spy that he's a legend that few can place by face. For those who've not read Greaney, his work is firmly in the spy/thriller category and Court Gentry is Jack Ryan on steroids. Several familiar characters appear for series fans—including Matt Hanley and Donald Fitzroy–but the novel is a stand-alone, not a sequel.

Gunmetal gray is fast-paced action. The basic set up is that twenty-six-year-old computer whiz Fan Jiang has defected from China and everyone wants him. The Chinese simply want him dead, as his codes could reveal plenty of Chinese intelligence, including all those China has hacked and how to return the favor. The British, Vietnamese, Thais, Russians, and Americans would like him alive so he can help them crack Chinese spy networks. This is a novel that validates Josef Stalin's remark, "I trust no one, not even myself." To that end, the CIA dispatches Court Gentry to Shenzhen, China in search of Fan Jiang–even though Gentry doesn't work for the CIA and the agency once tried to kill him. To what degree can the CIA trust a contracted lone wolf with a penchant for making his own rules? How much can the CIA not tell him before he figures things out and goes rogue? How can it trust that the groups he's playing aren't his real employers?

If you like action that makes James Bond seem like an old fart feeding pigeons in the park, this novel is for you–but enjoying it requires that you turn off anything resembling logic faculties. Before this one is done, you will land in China, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, and Singapore. There will be explosions, shootouts, arson, paratrooper clashes, rice paddy wading, jungle treks, perilous cliff climbs, high-tech spy gadgetry, and clandestine ship boarding. There will be more double crosses than you'd see at an Eastern Orthodox keychain shop and more hair's breath escapes than a Harry Houdini highlight reel. Along the way, Gentry will best or confound the Chinese military, sections of MI6, a Russian elite unit, the CIA, Vietnamese and Thai organized crime syndicates, and the Italian Mafia! The bad guys in this novel are essentially humanized orcs in that it only takes one Gentry to wipe out scores of them. There is even a scene in Hong Kong in which a cornered Gentry manages to best around fifty people trying to kill him. He also manages to find some time to do a single noble deed and a bit of romancing. I mean, c'mon! Nobody's that good. And if he is, the book's ending makes no sense.

No matter—not much of this book does. It's Rambo-like in its absurdities and its flowing testosterone, and an answered prayer for those who think all we need to do is look out for #1–trust, morality, help, and conscience be damned. I won't deny that this is a thriller in the truest sense, but it's kitchen sink slop as literature. First I was intrigued. Then my heart raced. But the moment my brain engaged, "Ooo. Ahh." gave way to "You've got to be kidding!"

Rob Weir