Book Review: Ghost Rider: Hell Bent and Heaven Bound

Title: Ghost Rider: Hell Bent and Heaven Bound

Authors/Creators: Jason Aaron, Roland Boschi, Dan Brown, Tan Eng Huat, Jose Villarrubia, et al.

Format: Trade Paperback Graphic Collection, Marvel Comics

Published: 2008

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There are two types of comic book type things I will review.  Graphic novels, which are essentially one story self contained in a singular illustrated volume and Collections, which take issues of a series and collect them together into one trade paperback volume.  Ghost Rider: Hell Bent and Heaven Bound is the latter, the actual fifth collection of the Ghost Rider series produced in the late 2000s by Marvel Comics.

To go into all the continuity that would have to be explained for someone not familiar with Ghost Rider would take volumes, so we’re going to do this quickly.  The Ghost Rider in this collection is Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle stuntman who sold his soul to the Devil in order to save someone.  The someone didn’t get saved, but Johnny was forced to work off his bargain anyway, becoming The Spirit of Vengeance, The Ghost Rider.

It was only later that Johnny learned the truth behind his curse.  Instead of his being the Ghost Rider being the fault of the Devil, it was actually the doing of an angel, Zadkiel, who cut  a deal with Johnny’s girlfriend at the time to circumvent the Devil’s deal.  Hell Bent and Heaven Bound opens with Johnny, now having the knowledge of his true origins, literally looking for a way to get into Heaven and take Zadkiel on face-to-face.

After trying several ways to get to Heaven, Johnny learns that a man who recently died, but was revived and scared to death to die again and return to Heaven was in a small town in Idaho.  Johnny visits this man, who knows who he is and relates that he wants to stay alive because going to Hell would be better than going to Heaven, as Zadkiel has lain siege to it.  Johnny, thinking this man is his ticket to the Pearly Gates, takes him out of the hospital, which basically causes the nurses, who are in fact agents of Zadkiel, to tear out after him with machine guns and motorcycles.  Throw in a highway haunted by cannibal ghosts that are still hungry, a town full of Zadkiel disciples, and a crooked deputy coming face to face with a live cannibal, and you have some sense of the road The Ghost Rider is traveling.

A second story, ‘God Don’t Live On Cell Block D’, has Johnny continuing his quest to break into Heaven, this time going to talk to a priest in prison for machine gunning his entire congregation, saying the angels made him do it.  This story does little to progress the overall arc, but is a fun bit about the Ghost Rider having to fight his way out of a prison, which includes quite literally a die hard disciple of Zadkiel and a whole lot of prisoners worthy of vengeance.

Overall, Ghost Rider: Hell Bent and Heaven Bound is a fun little read and ride.  The art isn’t consistent throughout either two issue story collected in the volume, so that’s a takeaway, although the art in the second story is superior to that in the first.   Johnny’s quest to get into Heaven by any means necessary is a neat concept that is as single minded as fans of classic Ghost Rider tales will remember the Spirit of Vengeance being, so that was enjoyable.  The first story seemed overly full, too much going on, too many hints trying to be dropped.  This made the second collected arc actually seem weaker, like enough wasn’t happening.

Ghost Rider: Hell Bent and Heaven Bound gets three out of five pages.  If You’re a die hard fan of ol’ Bonehead and his blazing bike, there’s enough in here for you to like, including the return of someone Johnny won’t be glad to see eventually.  If you’re looking for something that will make You pick up more Ghost Rider, this might be it, but might not be.  Overall average storytelling with up and down art.

This is a solid three out of six bullets by my scale.  Not something I’d seek out again, but a read that I enjoyed the first time through.  I found myself smirking at hints to Ghost Rider fans that were dropped only slightly more than I groaned at some of the poor art and sequential storytelling that plagued this book.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Ectoplasmic Man by Daniel Stashower

Title: The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Ectoplasmic Man

Author: Daniel Stashower

Format: Paperback, Titan Books

Published: 2009

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A few years back, Titan Books turned out a line of books entitled The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This series was exactly what it sounds like, adventures of Holmes post Doyle written by a variety of writers. I have read and previously reviewed one of these elsewhere and called it, paraphrasing here, one of the worst reading experiences I’ve ever had. I attempted to read a second and couldn’t finish for fear that I would have to revise that prior statement if I did. So, it’s safe to say that my experience with Titan’s foray into tales of the World’s Greatest Consulting Detective was anything but positive.

I can say that that has changed, at least somewhat, due to one of the books in the imprint.

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Ectoplasmic Man by Daniel Stashower finds Holmes in the later years of his career involved in a case of international intrigue involving the theft of letters written between the soon to be George V and a German countess. These letters are stolen in such a way that the only possible suspect, both for Scotland Yard’s Lestrade and Holmes brother, Mycroft, is the performer for the dignitaries at the mansion the night the letters are stolen. That performer is none other than Harry Houdini.

What follows is nothing short of a Victorian Roller Coaster Ride, involving jailing Houdini and binding him head to toe in chains and straitjackets, an impenetrable vault, gunplay, a mysterious figure in a red muffler and hat, and even airplanes! And all the while, Stashower not only writes Holmes and Watson in a pitch perfect way, he capitalizes on the characteristics of the pair as they interplay with Houdini that make this more than just two great icons coming together. It’s a true buddy flick cast in the gaslights of a London long lost, two geniuses in their own fields who clash and bash into each other, only to find they complement each other perfectly to resolve the mystery and have one hell of an adventure while doing it. This isn’t an easy alliance and that makes it all that much more engaging.

Crafting this as a lost tale penned by Watson, Stashower captures every nuance of Holmes in a way I’ve seen almost no one else do. He is just as skillful with Houdini, but the reason for that is grounded in his penning of The Harry Houdini Mysteries, three books featuring Houdini at the start of his career solving mysteries with his wife, Bess, and brother, Dash (I’ll be reviewing them soon, but take my word for it, three of the best mysteries I’ve ever read). The characters are real, stepping off the page into the reader’s mind and snatching said reader back into the text with them.

This book also contains a fair bit of physical action and daring do in it, largely due to Houdini’s presence. I know some people have issue with this in their Holmes’ tales because there wasn’t a proliferation of it in Doyle’s work, but what Stashower does in this story not only fits, but it stays within the acceptable parameters of action that Holmes and Watson would engage in and offers enough surprises to leave you on the edge of the page, eager to turn to the next one to see what happens.

If there were more than five pages to give for The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Ectoplasmic Man.  Every mark that Stashower had to hit to make this both a great Holmes book and a wonderful Houdini tale, he hit with amazing accuracy.

is definitely one of the big guns, getting six out of six bullets.  This book is a success in every sense of the word, from nailing Doyle’s voice to wonderfully reconstructing Houdini and Holmes and all who accompany them to delivering a level of action that definitely thrilled and fit into the expectations of a Holmes tale. You should read this volume if You’re a Holmes fan, a Houdini follower, a reader of mysteries, a lover of Victorian work, or simply someone who can just read words. By far the best modern non Doyle Holmes story I’ve ever read, and made even better because of Houdini.

Book Review – Welcome to the Symphony

TITLE: Welcome to the Symphony: A Musical Exploration of the Orchestra Using Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5
AUTHOR: Carolyn Sloan
ILLUSTRATOR: James Williamson
FORMAT: Hardcover w/attached music panel
PUBLISHED: 2015

Welcome to the Symphony is a fabulous book.  It’s probably best suited for slightly older kids because of lots of big terms… 4-7 maybe?  But the not-quite-3-year-old I read it to enjoyed the music part of it.  I’m sure he won’t be saying timpani anytime soon.

Anyway, the book follows three little mice.  One of them is at the symphony for the first time, so the other two mice explain it to their friend as the book goes along.  It’s a really direct approach to terminology “Tempo is how fast or slow music is played” – AND behavior at the symphony.  “Don’t clap yet, they’re just warming up!”

Plus, as it works its way through a pretty well-known piece of music (I remember this as a background to some cartoons), it explains all the instruments and you can compare them to each other pretty easy.  Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Trumpet, French Horn, Trombone, Timpani.  (And there’s a page about other instruments you may find in a modern symphony that you didn’t find in this piece of music such as the piano, harp, tuba, etc).

In all, this is a really thorough explanation of the symphony and a great introduction for a kid.

My only issue with the book is that you have to hit right on the number for the audio pad to work.  Most of these books, you can hit anywhere in the square; there are a lot of reviews on Amazon that say “This didn’t work!” and I suspect that they’re stemming from that issue.

Regardless – the book works, the toddler loved hearing the instruments, and when he’s a little older, I think this would be a great resource to teach him about music.

5/5 pages and 5/5 musical notes. :p

Book Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

Title: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Author: Seth Grahame-Smith

Format: Paperback, Grand Central Publishing, Movie Tie-In Edition

Published: 2012

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Just like anything else, there are trends in publishing and novels, in what is written and what people read. Some make total sense, some are forever, and some are just weird flashes in the pan. One of the latter began in the mid 2000s with the mashup of classic works with horror or other genre influences. One of the first of these was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. This caught on like wildfire for some reason and so a plethora of other books of this types and imitators followed, and even more books of the same sort by Grahame-Smith. Which brings us to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Although not a reworking of a previous work, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter essentially rewrites history. From the start, with Lincoln as a young boy, the book works to maintain all the traditional aspects of his life and his legend, while adding in that behind it all, driving him his entire life, was a vengeful lust for killing vampires. A scourge in American society, vampires seek to rule and Lincoln grows into man who, working with humans and even vampires against their own kind, seeks to stop that.

There is very little positive I can say about this book, other than the premise has potential, that is quickly dashed by the style of writing. Trying to be something between a late nineteenth century biography of Lincoln and a paperback horror novel, it never gets anywhere close to being either. Lincoln nor any of the characters around him, even the charismatic vampire that befriends and trains him, are the least bit interesting or relatable in any fashion. The demonizing of the Confederacy to being in league with the vampires, an interesting conceit in theory, is cartoonish and almost offensive on a few levels.

Is there something of value in this book? Yes. The action scenes are done extremely well and are the most interesting, even cinematic thing about this book. The image of Lincoln running through dense forest, his long legs reaching out in front of him as he hacks, slashes, and even slings his axe is striking and done well. But sadly, there is very little of such action within a book that should have built itself around that very thing.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter earns two out of six pages. Although an interesting concept, the execution of the idea teeters between stoic and maybe a little exciting, finally settling comfortably into boring. It’s a read when there’s nothing else to read or occupy your time.

One bullet out of six for my personal scale. I wanted to enjoy this, to like the characters, but I find it difficult to like anyone in it, particularly Lincoln and the inconsistent plotting as well as the attempt to stay extremely close to history with such an outlandish concept just torpedoes this one right from the start, except for the occasional well crafted action scenes.

 

Book Review: Crossroad Blues: A Nick Travers Mystery by Ace Atkins

Title: Crossroad Blues: A Nick Travers Mystery

Author: Ace Atkins

Format: Paperback, St. Martin’s

Published: 1998

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If you know me at all, or have followed my reviews any, you probably have a fair idea that a lot of the authors I read aren’t currently writing books. Many of them aren’t currently living anymore, actually. But, every once in a while, I do trip across a modern author who gets added to my list of likables, and even faves. Ace Atkins has made at least the likables list, now being the author of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels as well as due to a few books he wrote based on historical mysteries and situations. So, when Crossroads Blues: a Nick Travers Mystery came across my radar, it was definitely of interest.

Crossroad Blues follows Nick Travers, a former Pro football player turned harmonica player in New Orleans, and a Professor of Blues at Tulane, as he searches for a lost colleague. Another academic disappears in the Missisippi Delta while researching the blues in general, but the legend of Robert Johnson in specific. No, I’m not going to go into details about Johnson, possibly the living embodiment of the Blues, or the meeting with the Devil at the Crossroads, or any of that. That’s why Google exists. But, leave it to say, Johnson had a massive impact on the world and music.

As Nick begrudgingly goes on the hunt for the missing researcher, it quickly becomes apparent that there are at least three mysteries at work here- The one he is aware of, the mystery behind Johnson’s death (poisoned, but it is unknown by who or why), and the fact that nine recordings by Johnson that no one has ever heard may actually exist. And all of this means murder and maniacs for Nick Travers.

Now, it must be said- This was Atkins’ first novel. I acknowledge that to say that I don’t give favoritism to first novels or new authors. I’ve praised brand new writers and I’ve panned the likes of Spillane and Stout. Just putting that out there.

Crossroad Blues is like a gumbo that just doesn’t make. All the ingredients are there in every way. Travers is a strong, troubled protagonist who has passions and flaws that drive him further into the storm that is his life. He is surrounded by wonderfully conceived supporting characters, from the couple that own the club he blows harp at to the Elvis obsessed hitman to the albino old man they call Cracker. The characters pop with their own energy and fit right into what is a multilayered whodunit that spans decades and has a lot of potential.

But then again, that’s also a major part of the issue with this book. There’s simply too much. The pot is too full and it boils over. Not only do we have this mystery of many facets, but Atkins also essentially gives a handful of characters their own sub plots, even giving it to the reader from their POV. This is a shaky foundation to begin with and becomes even more unstable as the book unfolds. By the last fouth of the novel, it becomes muddled and confusing as to what Nick’s purpose is, so much so that the missing colleague really just sort of becomes a footnote without warning. What we end up with at the end is a resolution to the various mysteries that is at least palatable, a lot of dead people, and Travers exactly where he was both in location basically and in character as when the book opened.

Crossroad Blues: a Nick Travers Mystery rates three out of six pages. A well crafted story filled with living, breathing characters that simply degenerates into too many loose ends and not enough tropes to tie them up satisfactorily by the end. Still, a decent read for mystery fans.

In my gun, this one gets three out of six bullets. A bit of me wants to only load two in the gun, just because I really felt like my time was wasted by how the book wrapped up, but there is good in these pages. You can see the Atkins that is now writing the Spenser novels beginning to grow here. Grow, but not yet blossom, at least with this one.

 

Book Review – Baxter Barret Brown’s Cowboy Band

TITLE: Baxter Barret Brown’s Cowboy Band
AUTHOR: Tim A. McKenzie
ILLUSTRATOR: Elaine Atkinson
FORMAT: Hardback
PUBLISHED: 2006

 

So, Baxter Barret Brown’s Cowboy Band looked interesting enough and I picked it up to check it out and realized it came with a CD of bass fiddle music.

*Sigh*  I really shouldda left this one on the display.

I googled the guy and apparently he’s a moderately successful fiddler, so of course he’d write a series about it (Note – I had no idea, apparently this is book 2).

I wanted to like this book, but it’s every single stereotype that I hate and by the time I was 2 pages in, I realized I was using one of those hick accents to read with because the book is written with the expectation of one.

But the book is… weird.  BBB wants to fiddle with the cowboys so he takes his Bass, which is about 3x the size of Baxter,  shows up at a ranch, and proves all the ways he and his bass can be useful – melting down a string for a branding iron, using it as a bridge for cows, a wagon, a….  ARGH.  You don’t treat an instrument like that and doing it cutesy in a book like this for kids isn’t going to teach kids how to treat an instrument.  (And yes, I do expect a little realism in my children’s books, even the silly ones… FIT THE WORLD YOUR STORY IS IN)

The words are part of the illustrations and in some places are a little hard to read.  Also, the toddler had ZERO interest in this book when I tried to read it to him.

The music on the CD isn’t bad, but it’s not worth the book.

I’m giving it 2/5 pages for the book and 3/5 musical notes for the CD.  Because I can.

Book Review: Kill Your Darlings by Max Allan Collins

Title: Kill Your Darlings

Author: Max Allan Collins

Format: Paperback, T0r

Published: 1988

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I have a long list of authors I’ve read. I have a slightly shorter list of writers I actually enjoy. I have an even shorter list of those that I look forward to reading every word they write when I get the chance. Max Allan Collins qualifies in the latter exclusive group, so reading Kill Your Darlings, a novel featuring Collins’ writer character Mallory, has definitely been something I’ve looked forward to. And, as usual, Collins does not overall disappoint.

Kill Your Darlings finds Mallory attending Bouchercon, the traveling mystery/crime writers convention that finds itself in a different place each year. With the convention being in Chicago, Mallory ventures from his Iowa home to hobnob with his mystery writing peers, including the man he idolizes, Roscoe Kane. A once successful writer of hard boiled mysteries featuring detective Gat Garson, Kane has fallen off the best seller list and out of relevancy years ago and he’s not afraid to let Mallory and other authors around him know how he feels about that. He also drops hints about possibly finding his way back to the top, but that never comes to pass. Mallory finds Kane dead in his bathtub, apparently having drank himself to death. Mallory, however, believes there may be more to Kane’s death and has a plethora of mystery writing suspects to pick from.

There is so much right about this book. A master of mystery in nearly every form it takes, Collins delivers something with cozy aspects, a touch of hard boiled, a smattering of procedural, all wrapped up in an amateur crime solver package. Mallory is one of the best realized characters I’ve ever read. The reader is able to slip on Mallory like a coat and make his or her way through the mystery with him. This book has a strong, straightforward mystery at its center and revolves around it perfectly.

There is one glaring issue with Kill Your Darlings, however. With the setting being Bouchercon, Collins populated the story with characters that are essentially other real mystery writers, just under different names or, in a couple of cases, combined into composite characters. This is where Collins’ usual deft handling of a story falls short. If you’re a mystery reader at all, many of Collins’s characters will be familiar to you as prominent writers up through the 1980s. The author even feels like it is necessary to explain this in a note at the front of the book, which doesn’t help make the story better, but instead weakens it. At times, because of this conceit, the book almost reads like a pastiche, an attempt by the author to either idolize or scrutinize his peers.

Kill Your Darlings draws four out of five pages. Mallory is Collins at his best in regards to character building, making the lead accessible and fallible all at once. The mystery is solid and builds on itself, allowing the reader to follow Mallory and make assumptions and mistakes in the same way he does. The book’s only failing point is the fact that it set at a real event and utilizes paper thinly veiled versions of real writers, so the tale seems as much of a soapbox about Collins’ peers as it is a mystery tale.

Five out of six bullets is what this one garners.   Every nail is hit with bullet accuracy, but this would have been a better book without it being ‘Murder at Bouchercon’.

 

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