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’.

 

Book Review: The Osiris Ritual: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation by George Mann

Title: The Osiris Ritual: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation

Author: George Mann

Format: Hardback, Tor

Published: 2010

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I am a fan of many things. Book series, recurring characters, occult tales, stories of mystery and investigation, and strong leading characters with twists and turns along the way are top of my ‘What I look for in books’ list. George Mann’s The Osiris Ritual delivers on much of that checklist, but falls short as a tightly woven story unravels into predictability.

The Osiris Ritual is set in a steampunkish world of monarchy and monstrosity, the line between the two somewhat blurred by the fact that Queen Victoria is being kept alive due to various gadgets and gizmos. Sir Maurice Newbury serves as a special agent to the Queen, investigating strange and unusual crimes that may threaten England and the Crown. Assisting him, although she is not supposed to be aware of his status with the Queen, is Veronica Hobbes, an able bodied, charming woman who challenges Newbury in more ways than one.

The second volume in this series centers around the excavation and discovery of an Egyptian mummy, allegedly that of a priest who potentially had found the secret of immortality and was essentially buried alive for it. Newbury attends the public debut of the archaeological wonder, only to get involved in murder, a murder it appears the Mummy itself may have committed.

With this, the adventure is off and running with Newbury, assisted by Miss Hobbes, begins investigating whether or not the mummy has returned to life or if there is in fact something more sinister, more technological but just as diabolical at work. As the two dig deeper into the intrigue around them, Newbury learns all is not what it appears to be, not concerning the killer he now hunts or the woman he trusts to assist him and even with his life.

The Osiris Ritual most assuredly starts off on a fantastic foot, presenting mysteries of all sorts in layers. Newbury and Hobbes make a wonderful pair, complementing each other well and still standing on their own as individuals. The supporting cast provides strong pillars as well, from the Queen in all her morbid steampunkish glory to the young reporter thrust into the middle of the investigation by his own ambition. Mann is in top form for the first half of this book, building plot and character rapidly and engaging the reader well.

Then, unfortunately, the bottom falls out near the third quarter of the book and Mann never manages to regain the momentum that he established early on. Newbury becomes entangled in what turns out to be a useless endeavor of self analysis and each and every reveal that is made is telegraphed and totally without tension. Even the final confrontation between the killer and the heroes is mired down in having been done before and resolved leaving more questions than answers. The questions, however, aren’t really hard to answer or interesting enough to make the book better.

The Osiris Ritual: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation is three out of five pages. This was a hard call for me, but what read as a four or even five pager for over half the book simply collapses under the weight of cliché in the last act. I will seek out the other books in the series, the characters did appeal that much, but it’s really a one time read on its own.

As for my own scale, this one rates three out of six bullets.   I hope is that this one just suffers from ‘second book issues’ and recovers well in the third. The characters are dazzling and dark, but even they can’t hold back the deluge of predictable tropes that eventually pulls this book under.

Book Title – Cross Stitch: The Essential Practical Collection

TITLE: Cross Stitch: The Essential Practical Collection: Techniques, Projects, 600 Photographs and Charts: A Comprehensive guide to creative cross stitch with over 150 Gorgeous step-by-step designs in celtic style, traditional style, folk art and contemporary style
AUTHOR: Dorothy Wood
FORMAT: Paperback
PUBLISHED: 2000

I don’t often post reviews for craft books because crafting is so subjective, but with a title like that, this book has made a whole lot of promises.  And, well, it hasn’t delivered them.

First of all, I don’t know how “essential” or “practical” this collection is.  Half of the stuff is so ugly that I’d be embarassed to see stitiching it.  One pillow design is a hot mess.  It looks like a kid was doodling and mom translated it in string for no good reason.  Other stuff (“teenagers will love…” Um, no, no they won’t.) is just so bad that I can’t believe the patterns ever got in print.

Also, the book is all over the place – some patterns use DMC, others use Anchor, and there’s a bunch of other stuff that just isn’t consistent.  Many projects require the user to figure out the pattern on their own (isn’t the point of a pattern book to get a pattern?), and I’m not actually sure what some of the finished items even are.  And the patterns that are there all *require* the user to go copy the pattern at some level of zoom.

I wanted to like this book.  Based on the cover and it’s thickness, it looked thorough.  But practically (you know, title word here), it’s not.  There’s nothing modern about any of these patterns, and some of them need put out of their misery.

There is a good section at the beginning about technique and different types of stitching, but the rest of it is bad.

I’m going to give it 3/5, but it’s a nice, quiet, reserved one.

 

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