Category Archives: Review

Peer Review: “Close to Holmes” by Alistair Duncan

As usual, full disclosure: Alister Duncan is one of my peers at MX Publishing, and I got a copy of this (via iBooks) for free for review.

Usually when I do cardio for my workout, I watch videos on my iPad Mini. Last week, I forgot to side-load my episodes of Elementary, and the wi-fi in the gym was terrible, so I decided to try and read. Looking through my queue, I noticed I never got to reading Close to Holmes. Curious, I opened it up. I ended up reading through my workout, on the ride home, and well into the night.

Unlike some previous books I’ve reviewed, this isn’t a pastiche. Rather, it’s a nonfiction book. A tour guide, really — it goes around London circa 2008 and relates various streets, buildings and areas of the city to their relevance to the canon. Its comprehensive, entertaining, and full of great drawings, images, and modern photos of the areas in question. It goes deep into some corners of the canon, and even ties in some outside Sherlockian scholarship to key points (such as the probable location of certain buildings that Conan Doyle obfuscated in his writing).

If you’d like to learn more about London, it’s a great book. If you’d like to put images to the names in the canon, it’s a great book. If you’d like to dig into location-specific Sherlockian theories, it’s a great book. Luckily, I happened to be someone who was interested in all three.

Close to Holmes is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USA,  Barnes and Noble,  Amazon UK,  Waterstones UK,  Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Amazon Kindle,  Kobo,  Nook  and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.

Peer Review: “The Transmigration of Cora Riley” by Ellie Di Julio

As with most of my peer reviews, Ellie is a friend of mine. I’m coming into this biased, and I got a free ARC of it to read. Plus, it’s the first book I’ve actually written a pull quote for. If you’re interested, it was “Cora Riley is an action-packed urban fantasy, evocative of some of the best moments of Harry Dresden.”

The Transmigration of Cora Riley is an urban fantasy book about Cora Riley, in which… well, the usual stuff that happens in urban fantasy. A relatively mundane person stumbles upon extraordinary circumstances that lead to adventure and danger and really wild things. The quote about pretty well sets you up for the things you can expect to find in the book.

Overall, I enjoyed it. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t expecting much, but I ended up sincerely enjoying the book. Most of my irritations were elements of personal taste, such as one character (Agent 97) coming across as a bit cheesy at times. He’s part angel, part werewolf, and a secret agent all at once. The story almost accidentally flirts (pun intended) with paranormal romance structure. And yet, near the end the tropes get subverted, and something new happens as a result. Ageny 97 transcends his shoebox of special bits, and the romance becomes subordinate to the main plot. Cora repeatedly came across as a strong character in her own right, and I felt there is respect between the two characters. In the end, the line between “cliche” and “trope” is pretty fine, and individual readers might draw that line differently.

However you want to take the above, know that I ripped through this in a couple of days, which is actually rare for me. In the end I really liked this book, even though the odds were stacked against me liking it as much as I did. If you want to pick it up for yourself, you can get it on Kindle or in print.

[Peer Review] “The Papers of Sherlock Holmes,” Vol. 1 & 2, by David Marcum

First, a bit of housekeeping: I’ve been doing enough Peer Reviews and What I Learned reviews that I’m making a new category for them on the blog, creatively called “Reviews.” If you want my opinion on games and books and stuff, you’ll find it all there. Things like the Elementary canon stuff will still be in the “Sherlock Holmes” category, since they aren’t “reviews” per se.

Secondly, disclosure: This is another MX Publishing peer of mine. I don’t know Mr. Marcum personally, but I did get these for free as iBooks codes.

The Papers of Sherlock Holmes are nine pastiches spread across two books (eight short stories and one novella). They are all classic pastiches, and quite well done — the first volume is a very nice collection of short stories that are extremely well-written and very evocative of Doyle’s style. The second volume is a little more eclectic — two stories from Holmes’ later period (1921) in the US, and a novella going into the detail of Holmes’ family. Most of these stories make some assumptions about Holmes’ later period as well as the nature of his family. However, they’re all really well researched, and make efforts to fit not only within the original canon, but also with other pastiches! The novella was particularly entertaining for me, as it ties into the Wold Newton crossovers, particularly Nero Wolfe and Solar Pons.

If you like pastiches that are evocative of the original stories, I recommend Volume 1. If you are interested in some larger connections to other pastiches and references, I recommend Volume 2. They’re both good, but they are distinct, and worth considering separately.

Both books are available from all good bookstores including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and Apple iBooks (iPad/iPhone).

[Peer Review] “The Conqueror’s Shadow” by Ari Marmell

Disclaimer: I’ve known Ari for a few years now, and we have met socially a few times. I purchased my own copy of this, which sat on my Kindle for a couple of years until I finally got around to it in my queue.

I picked up The Conquerer’s Shadow because I liked the premise, and because I haven’t actually had the pleasure of Ari’s prose (although I was familiar with his RPG work). The idea is that an evil overlord tries to overthrow the kingdom, like they all do. This one fails, and disappears with his captive. Many years later, when the warlord has retired under a new name and with a family, a new warlord tries to recreate the previous conquest, and the original warlord has to done his skeleton armor to try and stop him.

I started reading it, and I figured out the plot twist in the first two chapters. I was a little disappointed by this, but I decided that this wasn’t a mystery but a fantasy novel, and I should just enjoy the ride. By around chapter thirty-five, I realized that I was expected to believe the plot twist, and it turned out to be something else entirely.

Let me be clear: Ari plays fair, as per a mystery. Further, he builds in a fake plot twist. And this is not presented in any way as a novel — it’s all a side to the core, strong fantasy story. Which is also funny and has compelling characters who also happen to be part of a plan to overthrow the nation at the behest of an overlord. On top of all of that, each chapter also incorporates flashbacks that slowly build up the history before the events of the story, and in such a way as they build on the story itself.

As a writer, this book is a course in how to accomplish a number of things simultaneously without losing momentum. It’s simply incredible. As a reader, it was an immensely entertaining story that was enjoyable to read.

[Peer Review] The Disappearance of Mr James Phillimore

Disclosure: This is another review of book by a fellow Sherlockian writer, Dan Andriacco. I am not personally familiar with Dan, but I got a free review copy from MX Publishing, our mutual publisher.

This is a bit of an unusual novel. It’s not a book featuring Sherlock Holmes, but rather a mystery novel about a detective who is a mystery writer and avid Sherlockian. And yet, it contains a Sherlock Holmes pastiche within it, which is part of the story. It is also the fourth in an ongoing series, but I haven’t read the other three books. All in all, it seems like it would be a hard book to jump in with, but I found it to be a very easy read, and quite enjoyable.

The premise is that the narrator, Jeff Cody, is on his honeymoon in Europe. He spends part of that time in London, where he meets with his friends and brother-in-law, Sebastian McCabe, who is an English professor, mystery novelist, and amateur sleuth. They get drawn into a series of murders, etc. etc. etc. As such, this book is operating on a number of layers:

Straight-Up Mystery: As a mystery, it’s not bad. The end is a bit rushed and a little ham-fisted, but it played fair and kept me guessing. Mystery fans will find it enjoyable, I think. The story does shift back in forth a time a lot at the start, but it does settle down pretty quickly.

Sherlock Holmes Lore: Most of the characters are Sherlockians (American Holmes fans), Holmesians (British Holmes fans), or otherwise part of the culture. The narrator, who is not a fan of Sherlock Holmes, ends up as a great foil for the various characters explaining the nuances of the canon and the various references they toss around.

And yet, there’s a strange bit of meta happening here: the characters are all aware of the canon to various degrees, and are aware of how various elements of the main story parallel the canon, but the references are not only between characters inside the story, but also in the story itself (for example, the eponymous disappearance is actually a reference Watson makes to another case in the text of “Thor Bridge”). It’s written off in a sort of “How odd that this seems to match up with the canon,” but it takes a while for the dissonance to resolve within the book.

Pastiche: As I mentioned, there’s a Sherlock Holmes short story pastiche within the novel itself. It’s actually pretty good, and follows the formula well.

Travelogue: The characters are from Ohio and travelling in London. I am also from Ohio and have been to London (my mother was also born in England), so I have a particular empathy for this viewpoint. The narrator knows nearly nothing about England, and his frequent “pip pip cheerio”-style comments and observations are sometimes painful. The writer’s knowledge of the area seems spot-on (since, again, I’ve been to many of those places myself), and I understand that the writer needed to have this perspective to be able to explain the events to readers unfamiliar with London. I also understand that most Americans unfamiliar with London would hold similar opinions and views. But it still felt painful to me, and my personal sympathy for the narrator was diminished. I think this is a highly personal point, and I think many casual American readers would be just fine, but it’s worth noting.

Conclusion

It’s a bit of an odd duck of a book, but it’s a surprisingly light and enjoyable read. If you like amateur sleuth mysteries with a heavy dose of Sherlockania mixed in for flavor, you’ll enjoy this book, and quite possibly the other books in the Cody/McCabe series.

Blurb from the publisher:

The Disappearance of Mr James Phillimore is available from all good bookstores including  Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook and Apple iBooks (iPad/iPhone).

Peer Review: “Shadowfall” by Tracy Revels

This is a bit of a departure for my Peer Reviews. Since being signed to MX Publishing for Watson is Not an Idiot, I get a steady stream of iBook codes so I can read and review some of the other Sherlock Holmes books that MX puts out. I’m not going to turn down free Sherlock Holmes books! So in this case, I’m using “peer” in a slightly different sense — I’ve never met Tracy Revels, but she is part of the MX stable of authors, so we are peers in that sense.

Before I get into the novel proper, though, follow me down a rabbit hole of sub-genres. Shadowfall is a Holmes pastiche about the supernatural, which is a common subject — one that Doyle even touched on at times. In my experience, there are two forms of this: the supernatural elements are explained as science (which is true to canon), or the supernatural elements are real (which Shadowfall falls into). Inside the “supernatural is real” sub-genre there are two sub-sub-genres: Holmes does not believe in the supernatural, or Holmes does believe in the supernatural. Shadowfall very firmly falls into “Sherlock Holmes/supernatural is real/Holmes believes in the supernatural.”

I bring this up because you need to buy into that concept before you can appreciate this book. I personally prefer either “the supernatural is really explained by science” or “Holmes does not believe in the supernatural,” but as long as I know the basis of the story I’m reading, I can put that behind me if I need to. Luckily, Tracy sets the stage in the first chapter, so the book doesn’t pull a bait-and-switch or string you along. I personally appreciated this up-front approach, and it helped me enjoy the book more.

The novel revolves around Titania, Queen of the Faeries, attempting to hire Holmes to recover something that was stolen from her. The novel progresses, picking up a variety of 19th century occult traditions as it progresses. In structure and tone, it actually reminded me a bit of The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, as it possesses a decently cohesive explanation for the metaphysics of the story, although at times some of the deductions ended up being an excuse to explain those metaphysics instead of showcasing the cleverness of the detective… another connection to The Dresden Files. It is not particularly dark or gruesome (which the cover might otherwise imply), nudging it more into urban fantasy rather than horror.

Ultimately, I enjoyed it. It was a fast read, a lot of fun, and an entertaining adventure (if not much of a mystery). More purist fans of Holmes may not be able to put aside the conceit to give the book a chance, but more open-minded fans will find an entertaining adventure waiting for them.

Shadowfall is available from all good bookstores including in the USA AmazonBarnes and Noble, in the UK AmazonWaterstones, and for everywhere else Book Depository who offer free worldwide delivery. In ebook format there is KindleiPadNook and Kobo.

Peer Review: Dinocalypse Now & Beyond Dinocalypse by Chuck Wendig

Time for another peer review. Disclosure: I’ve been friends with Chuck for six years, and I backed the original Kickstarter for the Dinocalypse trilogy (a series of novels based on the Spirit of the Century roleplaying game). Further, Dinocalypse Now and Beyond Dinocalypse are only the first two novels — the third one isn’t written yet. The second book picks up right after the first, and the structure reminded me a bit of Matt Forbeck’s Brave New World trilogy. You could theoretically read the second one without the first, but I think you would miss a lot, so I suggest you read them in order.

These are two pulp novels set in the 1920s (at least to start), featuring the adventures of the Century Club. These Centurions are all people born on January 1, 1900, and as a result are the epitome of humanity and do heroic stuff. They are asked to prevent the assassination of FDR. In the process, Manhattan is taken over by psychic dinosaur people. A lot of action and gripping character development ensues.

Honestly, this is a thing you either get into or you don’t. Personally, I love it. Having read a lot of original pulp novels like Doc SavageThe Shadow, and The Spider, I’ve developed a love for this mix of the bizarre and the gritty, and these two books channel that vibe wonderfully. If you can’t get past the idea of an evil mathemagician who fights an occult detective or a talking ape that teaches at Oxford and it is played straight, these books will be a hard sell. However, I found them both to be utterly charming and wonderfully fast-paced fun, and the clash of bizarre images worked for me.

Like many pastiches of historical genres, there are increased roles for women and people of color beyond what were originally presented in the 20s and 30s. In some books it can come across as excessively political and awkward, but here it is very natural and fluid. These characters feel real, not a find/replace of gender and ethnicity. Granted, when you’re writing about a disembodied brain that wants to take over the world, a little thing like fidelity to traditional gender roles seems minor, but I appreciate being able to root for a character that’s an African-American woman.

If you’ve read any of Chuck’s other work, know going in that you won’t find any of his casually foul-mouthed humor here, as it wouldn’t work with the genre. However, there are certain moments of levity and snark that all almost Whedon-esque that I appreciated just as much, if not more. It may be a little different from Chuck’s usual voice, but it’s very much Chuck’s style. I highly suggest the books if you’re already a fan of Chuck, if you like comic book-style action/adventure, or if you’re a fan of Spirit of the Century.