Book Review: The Great Detective

The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, by Zach Dundas
5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads

“If you love Sherlock Holmes, the rabbit hole beckons, always.” – p238

Deerstalker 1
One of the two deerstalkers that my mother made for me, creating her own pattern.  I have been known to wear this.  In public.

This book is close to pulling me back into that rabbit hole. I was an avid Sherlockian when I entered college, thanks to a friend I made my senior year of high school. I loved to play “the Great Game” (Holmes and Watson were real, Conan Doyle was just a literary agent, and all these stories really happened). I’d hole up on the third floor of the University library with a copy of Baker Street Byways or The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and read them between classes.  I discovered I could get copies of articles from the Baker Street Journal via inter-library loan and amassed quite a collection of them (at one point they had to cut me off because if I’d received any more articles that calendar year, I’d be violating copyright law; we worked around this by requesting the entire bound journal so I could make my own copies). Reading this book brought all that fun back for me – pouring over footnotes in Baring-Gould’s The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, driving off to Indianapolis and a Sherlock Holmes Symposium with that friend from high school, and making my own attempts at pastiche.

The Tome 2
We called this “the tome.”  One of my two copies (yes, I have two copies of the same book) is on display in my house.

The Great Game is only one part of the phenomenon that is Sherlock Holmes, and Dundas tries to explore them all. We begin with the beginning – Arthur Conan Doyle. Dundas traces his early life, at least so far as it might have influenced Holmes’s creation (this isn’t a biography of ACD). We get more details as they coincide with the publication of the various novels and stories in the Canon, and Dundas draws connections between real-world events surrounding Conan Doyle and the stories he wrote. When you play the game, you mostly ignore Conan Doyle. He’s just the literary agent, after all. But Dundas looks at Conan Doyle the story-teller, and he gave me a new appreciation for ACD. Conan Doyle was a master short-story writer. He had the formula down pat. And yet, his writings aren’t entirely formulaic. Holmes and Watson were useful characters who found themselves in a variety of stories. Action-adventure, spy thrillers, Gothic horror, and even something like a Western (as Dundas puts it, “the Sherlock Holmes Canon is a Whole Earth Catalog of storytelling strategies.”). Throughout it all, Conan Doyle creates a portrait of a lasting friendship. There cannot be a Holmes without Watson. Reading about Conan Doyle and the chronology of his writing of the Holmes stories made me realize I have never read them in publication order. My text has always been Baring-Gould’s text, which puts them in “chronological order,” or at least his version of it (if you put 5 Sherlockians together and asked them to put the stories in chronological order, you will get 5 different orders).

Persian slipper
I received a Persian slipper from my friend as a high school graduation present. Today it keeps company with a bust of Abraham Lincoln and an owl on my fireplace mantel.  To date it still does not hold any tobacco.

The book delves in to the various productions of Holmes, from the parodies published in newspapers contemporary with the stories coming out in The Strand to Gillette’s play and on-ward, lingering with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, skimming over Jeremy Brett (more really could be said about Brett’s performance and Granada’s production), and finally moving to Sherlock and Elementary. He takes a stab at discussing fanfiction (and treats it pretty fairly) and spends a satisfying amount of time giving the history of the Baker Street Irregulars and the writings about the writings.

Sherlockian bookcase
My Sherlockian bookcase, which includes different editions of the stories as well as some neo-Sherlock.  Sayers and Stout both played “the Great Game” so it’s fitting they are there.  Allingham sort of snuck in but I haven’t the heart to banish her.

Dundas’s stated purpose was to answer some questions about Sherlock Holmes and the way he has continued for 130 some years in various forms. I found myself nodding along to his conclusions. There is Holmes himself, this man we know so much and so little about. Devotees can tell you many characteristics of the Great Detective, and yet his past remains a mystery. Who was he before he took on those first investigations (“The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual”)? What was his family life like? Where did he grow up? Where did he go to University? In the stories we learn very little beyond the fact that he has an older, even smarter, brother (Mycroft). Then there is Watson, the heart and soul of the business. Holmes is the genius detective, intriguing to be sure, but it is Watson that the reader identifies with. He is necessary to make the whole thing work (and if you doubt that, just look at the two stories ACD did with Holmes as narrator, and how they don’t work). At times Holmes is a calculating machine, but Watson remains reliably human. The Canon is a lasting portrait of their friendship. And finally, there is the sense that when we read Conan Doyle’s stories, we are getting a glimpse of a fully fleshed out world. I’ve likened it to peeking through a keyhole. You know there’s more to the room, things out of your line of sight – you can’t see them but you know they’re there. This sense of these stories being part of a larger world is intriguing (and gives rise to the Great Game, to pastiche, and opens the door for a multitude of interpretations of the characters). As Dundas puts it, “Conan Doyle didn’t mean to, but he salted his Sherlockian work with storytelling prompts. Watson repeatedly whispers ‘Go’ into the imaginative reader’s ear. And so, from almost the very beginning, other people have felt compelled to make up their own Sherlock Holmes stories.” People have done that in many ways, from finding “problems” in the original stories to analyze to writing pastiche to creating fanfiction to writing plays, radio dramas, movies, and tv shows based on the characters. If you love these characters, you can’t resist. You slip into that rabbit hole and off you go. It’s great fun, even if it would drive Arthur Conan Doyle mad. That fun is beckoning to me once more, but before I go back to the game, I think I’ll read the stories over in publication order.

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Book Review: Beware the Wild

5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads

This book pulled me and didn’t let me go, much like mud in the swamp at the heart of the story. Sterling Saucier (pronounced SO-shur) was a great character. I felt her worries, her sense of urgency, her confusion as she tried to hold on to the memory of her brother and deal with a whole new set of memories, of a sister, which shouldn’t have been in her mind. She struggles against feelings for this sister, all while knowing that she shouldn’t have these memories of her.

Sterling’s mission seems clear – get her brother back from the swamp, set things right again. Of course, it’s not as simple as all that. All magic comes with a price, and the magic of the Shine is no exception. Sterling has to find a way to get Phin back without losing herself, or anyone else, to the Shine. She has to deal with a town that denies the existence of the Shine, that fears the swamp and fences it away without ever daring to talk about or even think about why. There’s power in memory, power in fear, and power in where things (and people) are from. Sterling has to figure out how to work with all of that in her efforts to save her brother, and the one thing she can’t evade is the cost of the Shine.

Sterling has a cast of other great characters around her. There’s Candy, her best friend and the undeniable leader of the group; there’s Heath, who understands what she’s dealing with; and though he isn’t there, her memories of Phin make feel her attachment to him. Even Lenora May turns out to be more complicated than she seems at first. The only character who really falls flat is Abigail. We’re told she’s black and Lesbian, but we don’t get any real sense of her a person. It feels like she’s there to check some box and that’s it.

All in all this was a great read and I look forward to meeting the author at Midwest Writers Workshop later this year!

Book Review: The Icarus Hunt

Five out of five stars on Goodreads

As I got closer and closer to the end of this book, I became more and more torn. I wanted to know what was going to happen next, but at the same time I didn’t want the book to end. I loved the world Zahn created, loved the characters of Jordan and Ixil (and Pix and Pax) and I didn’t want to leave them. I went to Zahn’s Goodreads page, hoping he had written more with these guys, but he hasn’t, so I knew when I reached the end, that would be it (except for re-reads).
Zahn plunks you down in a wholly-crafted world of space travel, bars on far-off planets with disreputable mixes of humans and aliens, space craft hauling cargo, and a mix of humans and aliens crewing them. It’s a familiar world – lots of sci-fi novels take place in similar ones – but it’s great atmosphere. We learn more about the politics of this world as the story goes on, just as we should (those play a key role in the action). We don’t get bogged down in the science part – Zahn doesn’t lose sight that this is fiction. This is a good old fashioned space opera and thus it is our characters who matter most. Zahn creates good ones, ones you like and enjoy rooting for (or against).
Jordan McKell might remind you a bit of Han Solo. He’s a spaceship pilot, former military now turned smuggler, but there’s more to him than that. Ixil is his partner, an Iguana-faced alien with two symbiotic critters, similar to ferrets, that perch on his shoulders when they aren’t being sent off to scout or stand guard (or when they haven’t spotted some good food nearby).
Ixil and Jordan have each others’ backs, and that is good because they’re part of a crew of strangers hauling, taking a bizarre spacecraft from a far-flung world to Earth. Their boss failed to show for lift-off, their cargo hold is sealed so they don’t know what they’re hauling, and at their first maintenance stop their mechanic is killed in what may or may not have been an accident. Add to the mix a criminal underworld boss, another mysterious man of power, and a race of aliens who control most shipping who are showing a great deal of interest in the ship, and it’s going to be all Jordan and Ixil can manage to fulfill their contract to deliver the Icarus to Earth while staying alive. It makes for a great page-turner and a fun read!

Book Review: The Coincidence of Coconut Cake

The faculty list for Midwest Writer’s Workshop came out a few weeks ago so I am trying to read something from each of the faculty (if I haven’t already).  First up, Amy Reichert’s The Coincidence of Coconut Cake.  I gave this one 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.

First, let me warn you. Reading this book will make you hungry! Food is an extremely important part of the story, and both Lou and Al are foodies so there are descriptions galore of some amazing-sounding foods. Consider yourself warned.

This reads like a rom-com movie, which means there are more than a few cliches. However, that’s not meant as a criticism. There are certain cliches which are fairly inevitable for the rom-com genre and they are not only expected, but welcomed. We have the woman-pulled-off-balance-into-the-man moment, a dance in the rain, misunderstandings which threaten to ruin everything, and a wise older couple to help guide our love-lorn characters. These are all enjoyable moments (well, the misunderstandings are painful, but that’s because you can see how this is going to hurt the characters and you like them). I especially love the older couple. They are sweet without being cloying. Reichert’s voice was enjoyable, and I loved Lou, Al, Sue, Harley, and John.

If I have one criticism, it is of the way Lou’s ex is handled. When we first meet Devlin, I assume he is a well-meaning but clueless guy. The real issue between them seems to be that they want different things from their lives and aren’t communicating well. Devlin sees working in restaurants as a thankless, difficult job. His mother did it to support him and help him pursue his education. He doesn’t understand that for Lou is this a labor of love, not just a job. Lou doesn’t do much to dissuade him of that notion. That alone is reason enough for them to not get back together. There was no need for Devlin to be made into a full-on villain. Lou could have found her strength and confidence without that, and the rest of the story would have worked as well. That was one cliche too many for me.

All in all this was an enjoyable read and definitely left me hungry, for good food and for more from this author.

Book Review: Wandering Soul by Cassandra Chandler

5 out of  5 stars

I read this in a single day. I neglected my own writing (and some other things) in favor of reading this. That should tell you how well and truly hooked I was by it. 🙂
I’m not normally a big reader of romance, but I’ve been looking forward to this one since I first heard about. Time travel, the Phantom of the Opera – what’s not to love about that combination? The book did NOT disappoint. I loved it. There were the usual things you expect from a romance – immediate physical attraction between the main characters, lots of misunderstandings which serve to make them hesitant and then serve to put up roadblocks between them, some jealousy, and issues from their pasts which make things difficult for them. But the fact that these things are an expected part of a romance didn’t detract from how enjoyable the read was. Elsa and Dante are well-drawn characters, fully fleshed out and believable. Their attraction never felt forced. Their difficulties felt genuine. Watching them overcome their obstacles was immensely satisfying.
The book ended on a VERY intriguing epilogue and I understand this is the start of a series. I can’t wait to see where it leads! I hope it will offer us more time with Dante and Elsa, as well as giving us a chance to get to know more about the other characters – Jazz, Garrett, and Winston. They were supporting characters but I loved them and can’t wait to know more about them.
This was a fantastic read and I loved it. I’m just sad that I’ve finished already!

Book Review: Divide, by Jessa Russo

I received a free e-book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Divide tells the story of Holland Briggs and Mick Stevenson.  Something is wrong with Holland – she can feel it.  She’s turned into a social pariah at school thanks to a painful break-up, followed by some arson and attempted murder.  Mick Stevenson believes he’s the key to saving Holland from the evil inside her.  She just has to fall in love with him.  That’s no easy task, given what’s happened to her.  And, as it turns out, things are a bit more complicated than that.

Good things:
The way the story hooked me.
The characters. I loved the relationship between Holland and Cameron. It felt very believable. Cam did things which reminded me of my own younger brother. Of course, he was also one-up on my brother by being fiercely loyal to and protective of his sister. Ro was great fun and I liked the way she went from annoying Holland to showing she was a true friend (and so much more to Cam). I liked Mick, and I enjoyed the banter between Mick and Holland.
Bad things:
I grew increasingly impatient with the characters as the story progressed. They were slow to catch on to things which felt really obvious to me. There were also some strange cuts from chapter to chapter, gaps that took me by surprise because the passage of time wasn’t noted (one chapter Holland & Mick are making out, the next she’s waking up alone). I’m also not a fan of using chapter headings to identify your narrator. If each character has a strong voice, it shouldn’t be necessary. I felt like, as the book went on, Holland and Mick developed strong enough voices to make those headers unnecessary.
Overall, this was an engrossing read which hooked me quickly, with good characters and, despite the fact that some of the big confrontation was no surprise, still managed to sneak in a twist. I’d rate this at 3.5 stars out of 5.

Book Review: Woof, by Spencer Quinn

I loved the idea of a novel written from a dog’s POV but wasn’t sure how well it could be done. Spencer Quinn nails it in Woof. The story is told from the perspective of Bowser, a mutt adopted by Birdie and her Grammy as a belated birthday gift for Birdie. Bowser has had a rough life, but being a dog, he doesn’t dwell on it. As he puts it, his mind doesn’t go backwards. He’s also very smell-focused, as you’d expect from a dog. He faithfully reports on human conversations, even when he admittedly doesn’t necessarily understand them, and he falls asleep when things get dull (from his POV). Still, he tells us enough for us to grasp what’s going on (better than he does) and play along at solving the mystery.

Bowser himself isn’t much concerned with the mystery, except in how it impacts his new human, Birdie Gaux. He views things on instinct, emotion, and smell. He loves Birdie almost immediately and his mind quickly moves from wanting freedom to run about to wanting to stick close to this “off the charts” kid. He picks up on feelings so even when Grammy is talking mean, he knows she’s got a good heart and that she cares. He’s dead on about who is trustworthy and who isn’t, even when he doesn’t quite understand the concepts. His way of looking at the world is delightful, from his thoughts on the importance of having a tail (“It helps to have a tail to tell you when a good idea comes along.”) to his response on a particular idiom (“Quiet as mice? You heard that one from humans. Didn’t they know mice were in fact kind of noisy?”). In Bowser, Quinn has created a unique and fun protagonist, with a charming view of the world.  I hope we’ll have many more Bowser and Birdie stories to enjoy!  I give this one 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Dare to Dream by Carys Jones

Carys was kind enough to send me a copy of the Kindle edition of this book to review.

In Dare to Dream we meet Maggie Trafford, a 14-year-old girl in a smallish city in England who is plagued by disturbing dreams.  The book is done in two parts, with the first part being a slower read than the second.

Maggie’s world is quickly established: she’s one of five children, with no father in the picture, and an unemployed mother who is not doing much mothering that I can see. With the exception of Maggie, the children are selfish, uninterested in bettering themselves, and obnoxious. It’s hard to feel much for them, or to feel that Maggie has much connection with any of them.  Her mother is just as self-absorbed as Maggie’s sisters, and so beaten down by her disappointments that she’s given up on trying to improve either her life or the lives of her children.

Maggie’s best friend is Dawn. We are told that they’ve been best friends since they were about 8, but the friendship never feels that deep to me. Dawn comes across as vapid and self-absorbed most of the time. Maggie’s envy of her friend’s family’s better socio-economic adds to the feeling that this isn’t much of a friendship, no matter how many times we are told otherwise. In fact, the relationships in the story all suffer from too much telling and not enough showing in the writing.

The premise is intriguing. Maggie’s nightmares show the end of the world. They are vivid and creepy, especially once Maggie actually begins to be harmed while in the nightmares. No one believes her when she tells them that these are more than nightmares but Maggie grows increasingly certain that they are prophecies and that they need to be acted upon. Finally she does take action, bringing along Dawn and a boy from school named Andy (who has a crush on her that she’s unaware of). The book’s pace picks up a bit when the teens finally take action.  This is part 2 of the book, their journey to find safety from whatever or whoever is destroying the world.

Maggie vacillates between confidence and nearly crippling self-doubt, which can be irritating but I kept reminding myself that this character was supposed to be a 14-year-old girl and such swings are a normal part of being a teenager. The same vacillations plagued Andy and Dawn. The book ends in such a way that I assume a sequel or perhaps even a series is in the works.

This book gets three stars because, in spite of some clunky writing in places (here’s an example: “She perched herself on the end and gazed over at Mrs. Grimes who herself sat in a matching arm chair.”), I am intrigued by the premise and curious about what will happen next.