BOOK REVIEW: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sherlock Holmes, #5)The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A legend tells of a monstrous hell-hound who haunts the moors of Devonshire and who long ago killed the head of the Baskerville estate, a wealthy family and linchpin within the community. When the present head of the Baskerville fortune, Charles, dies suddenly and under mysterious circumstances – i.e. outdoors at night and in the presence of huge paw prints — many neighbors conclude the legendary hound has returned to fulfil the curse of the Baskervilles. The doctor, neighbor, and friend of Charles, Dr. Mortimer, doesn’t know what to think, as a man of science he might dismiss the legend, but he’s the one who found the hound prints. Above all, Mortimer knows that if the new heir to the Baskerville estate is driven away, it would be devastating for the neighborhood. Mortimer thus seeks the advice of Sherlock Holmes.

This is one of the most well-known and beloved stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon (fyi – it’s #5.) One interesting feature is that Holmes, himself, is not present through the middle of the story. As in all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s Dr. Watson who provides perspective and narration, but throughout the second act we see Watson doing the investigating as well. Sherlock is present for the beginning of the story when Mortimer comes to call and the Baskerville heir, Henry, arrives in London, and then he’s there to spring a plot to conclude the case, but in between we learn of only Watson’s activities in Devonshire.

This is an intriguing tale from beginning to end, and it is remarkable how many strange and seemingly disparate strings the story ties up cleverly. It’s a fascinating look at superstition and how it creates converts under the right circumstances. This quick and thrilling read is worthy of your time.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of the Four (Sherlock Holmes, #2)The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel is the second of the books in the Sherlock Holmes canon. It begins with a client (Miss Morstan) coming to see Holmes to acquire his advice as to whether she should make a rendezvous to which she has been summoned by mysterious means, Morstan being a beautiful young lady who is weary of showing up to a random public location, having been told to not involve the police. We learn some intriguing facts from the conversation, such as that she began receiving a pearl from an anonymous source each year and that her father (Capt. Morstan) has passed away.

With Sherlock and Watson in tow, Miss Morstan does attend the rendezvous, and we learn that the meeting is with the son (Thaddeus Sholto) of a man with whom her father served in the military at Port Blair in the Andaman Isles (Maj. Sholto.) The mystery of the pearls is cleared up as we discover that Maj. Sholto cheated Capt. Morstan out of his share of a treasure that the Major came into possession of while stationed in India, and his two sons (particularly Thaddeus) feel the need to make amends to Capt. Morstan’s heir, but would like to do so without dragging the family name through the muck or creating legal hassles.

It seems everything is wrapped up with a nice bow, when Thaddeus takes Miss Morstan, Holmes, and Watson to see his (more reluctant to be fair to Morstan) brother Bartholomew, who is the one in actual possession of the treasure. However, when they find Bartholomew dead and the treasure gone, the true mystery begins. The balance of the book involves a chase to find the missing treasure, the men who stole it, and to unravel the mysterious circumstances behind the treasure. The final chapter tells the elaborate backstory of the treasure, going back to India and to the titular four men, the four whose names were found at the scene of Bartholomew’s murder and who previously possessed it — one of whom serves as the storyteller. Along the way, a mangy bloodhound, the Baker Street Irregulars (street urchins employed by Holmes,) and – of course – the brilliant reasoning of Sherlock Holmes are used to solve the case.

Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the most intriguing fictional characters ever with Holmes. If he were just a brilliant man with supreme skills of observation and reasoning, he’d be no more interesting, and have no greater longevity, than any of the many other characters. But in Sherlock we see that brilliance always has a cost. Holmes is also an addict, is troubled by insomnia, and is – in some ways – socially dysfunctional. (e.g. When Watson develops a relationship with Miss Morstan, Holmes confesses that he can’t grasp the value of marriage / long-term intimate relationships.)

What the author does with character, he also does with setting by bringing into the story (through backstory) locales that are exotic and intriguing – e.g. Port Blair. Even by today’s standards there are always little tidbits of the exotic drawn into the story, even though most of the Holmes’ stories — this one included — don’t venture far from London.

If you enjoy crime and detection fiction, this book is a must. It’s highly readable and offers a compelling story. In terms of the Holmes canon, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly better or worse than others, but I don’t find there is a huge variation in quality among these novels and stories. It is one of the better-known titles (except that some call it “The Sign of Four” and others “The Sign of the Four” – the latter being the original title as far as I can discern.)

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BOOK REVIEW: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of a dozen short stories is the third book in the Sherlock Holmes canon, and the first of the short story collections. The cases described range from murder and scandalous thefts to mysteries as seemingly mundane as why a certain pawnbroker, engineer, or governess got a job offer too good to be true. There is often a falsely accused suspect, or no suspect whatsoever. On more than one occasion, two characters are, in actuality, one. It’s typical Sherlock Holmes, which is to say compelling and engaging throughout. Furthermore, there are a couple of cases, such as the first, that break the usual mold, as the author apparently recognized that it would not to do not break up the cycle of: “strange case gets solved and extensively explained, repeat.”

The stories are as follows:

1.) “A Scandal in Bohemia” – The King of Bohemia, about to be wed, becomes the victim of blackmail. This is one of those cases that breaks the mold as a it’s one of the few in which the criminal gets the better of Holmes – though all works out for Holmes’ client.

2.) “The Red-Headed League” – This is one of the three stories in the collection in which an individual gets a job that pays impossibly well with requirements that, while not onerous, are strange. A pawnbroker is given a nice stipend for ridiculously trivial work by a mysterious organization that funds gingers.

3.) “A Case of Identity” – A well-to-do woman’s fiancé disappears, or so it seems.

4.) “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” – A landowner in the countryside is murdered, and his son, with whom he’d recently argued and who was the last to see him alive, is the immediate and only suspect of Scotland Yard.

5.) “The Five Orange Pips” – A man who recently received a note containing five orange seeds dies, somewhat suspiciously, and under circumstances that do not bode well for his heir.

6.) “The Man with the Twisted Lip” – A husband goes missing, and a beggar immediately comes under suspicion as his killer – though there is no compelling evidence of murder.

7.) “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” – A famed jewel goes missing and a suspect is in custody, but when the jewel is discovered in the alimentary canal of a Christmas goose, what is to be made of that?

8.) “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” – A woman fears her stepfather. The woman’s sister died a couple years before, having made an obscure comment about a “speckled band” as she died.

9.) “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb” – A struggling hydraulic engineer gets a job that seems rudimentary enough, but which nearly costs him his life, and does cost him a thumb. It’s clear that his employer is not engaged in the minor crime that the man confessed to in his explanation of why the engineer must work during the dead of night.

10.) “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” – A gentleman’s bride disappears on their wedding day. There are those who think it foul play.

11.) “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet” – A banker who is holding a crown as loan collateral, suffers a theft that threatens his professional reputation, and potent circumstantial evidence points to the banker’s son.

12.) “The Adventure of Copper Beeches” – An unemployed governess is offered a job that pays three times the going rate for light work involving one child, so long as she agrees to cut her hair, and — on occasion – wear a certain dress while sitting in a particular chair.

Doyle creates fascinating characters in Sherlock Holmes and his protégé Doctor Watson, characters that continue to spin off stories to this day, and for good reason. While there is a lot of hokum in these stories, the idea of being able to draw such great information from such miniscule signs captures the imagination. And Doyle does make efforts to break up the monotony. While I pointed out that there are three stories in which characters get great jobs with bizarre requirements, each of these cases is different with respect to why the client got said well-paying job – though it is true in each case that something more nefarious than meets the eye is afoot. It’s not all murder and burglary, sometimes it’s cases that are intellectually interesting if trivial in stakes. And once and a while, Holmes doesn’t get his man, so to speak.

This is a readable and entertaining set of stories. I’d highly recommend giving it a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of the Great Detective in India and TibetThe Mandala of Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of the Great Detective in India and Tibet by Jamyang Norbu

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I gave this book the lowest rating that I’ve ever given a book I reviewed. However, there’s a selection bias at work. I don’t finish (and rarely start, for that matter) books that are so horrible that they’d get a lesser rating. Ergo, any book that I finish and review has some redeeming qualities. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether these redeeming qualities will outweigh the deficiencies of story in this book.

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes takes our beloved detective out of London and onto a trip from Bombay to Shangri La by way of Shimla (India) and Lhasa (Tibet.) It’s one of several pieces of Great Hiatus fan fiction out there. (I recently saw an addition that took Holmes to Japan.) Fans of Sherlock Holmes will be aware that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became tired of the character at one point and killed him off (along with Professor Moriarty) at Reichenbach Falls. Holmes was “revived” several years later due to popular demand (and—perhaps—Doyle’s need for funds), leaving fans / authors to speculate what the detective did during his time in hiding (i.e. the so-called Great Hiatus.) This particular work tells us that Holmes spent his time in the Himalayas. It’s as good a setting as any, given that fascination with the esoteric Himalayan world was building in the West during this time. In an interesting feature, Norbu’s book brings in a fictional character from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Hurree Mookherjee, to serve as Holmes’s sidekick. (FYI: Kim was published during the Great Hiatus years.) The story involves shadowy plots against both Holmes and a young 13th Dalai Lama (this was the predecessor of the current Dalai Lama) that are incidental to obtaining a powerful mandala.

I’ll begin with the strengths of the work before I tear into what I found objectionable about the book. The author, Jamyang Norbu, clearly did his research, and there are some fascinating tidbits and insights into that era of South Asia history. As a Tibetan, Norbu, paints an intriguing travelogue of the territory that Holmes and Hurree traverse. Also on a positive note, I’d rate the readability of this work to be high. It doesn’t follow the 19th century so closely that it falls into the purple prose and general verbosity of that century’s literature, and I think that’s a good thing. The author manages to create a bit of the feel of 19th century literature without falling off the abyss.

The book’s negative qualities are disproportionately loaded toward the back of the book. (Part of what keeps one reading and engaged is that it seems like the book could turn out well.) Let me begin with one minor character defect of the book which is that not all of the chapters advance the story; a few are descriptive like travelogues. However, most of said chapters are so short that it’s not that problematic.

I should note that one star that might’ve been obtained for originality must be forfeited because there’s no shortage of books following the same general premise.

But the story’s major flaw is that devolves into supernatural speculative fiction done poorly. Let me say, I’m not against the supernatural genre in theory. However, as with stories about Superman, these tales are exceedingly easy to do poorly and extremely difficult to do well. In the real world, tension is easily created because the reader knows many of the limits that characters face, and a good writer forces his characters up against some of those limits. However, when characters seem to be limited by the laws of physics, but then just start pulling magic rabbits out of their hats, the tension drains. We assume our protagonist will prevail and the antagonist will be thwarted. The odds stacked against our hero(es) don’t matter if one expects they’ll pull out a—proverbial or otherwise–magic wand and claim a cheap victory. If one wants to do the supernatural well, one needs to not only make the antagonist stronger (which Mr. Norbu does), but one has to know what everybody’s limits are. Otherwise, it’s just a cheap spectacle. [I should point out that Hurree does engage in a non-magical action that is critically timed during a key moment of the story, and some readers may feel that this absolves the novel of its ham-handed introduction of the supernatural.]

There’s another problem with the degree to which the book hinges on the supernatural, and that is specific to the domain of Holmes. The supernatural is usually something to be debunked in the Holmesian domain. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes is a product of the dawning of the age of rationality, and he is a man of science. [Want to know more? See this Tor article entitled “No Ghost Need Apply.”]Doyle’s Holmes may accept the possibility of the supernatural and apparently supernatural elements may make appearances, but Holmes is always looking for an explanation rooted in logic and favoring the possible. While Norbu goes to great lengths to capture the flavor of Holmes in many aspects, he abandons the character altogether in favor a world that looks neither like our own nor the one Arthur Conan Doyle created.

The disappointment of this book is that it looks like it’s on a trajectory to hit its mark, but then sails wildly off target.

If you like supernatural fiction and you don’t mind that magic suddenly pops up to shape the climax of the book out of the blue, by all means pick this book up. Otherwise, I can’t say that I’d recommend it for Holmes’ fans.

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READING REPORT: February 27, 2015

I finished three books this week.

Antifragility

The first of these is Antifragile, the latest offering by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whom you may know from Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness fame. While it’s his latest book, it came out a couple of years ago and I started it over a year ago.  The premise is that some entities become stronger when exposed to stressors and disorder,  and there are ways to nurture this tendency to be antifragile. While the ideas and many of the examples are fascinating, I put it down for a long time because Taleb is prone to rambling diatribes. After about the 1oooth time reading about how much he loathes the 98% of professors (we get it already), you may be ready to set it down as well.  [To be fair, Taleb probably gets a hundred death threats a year from enraged social science scholars whose life’s work will appear ridiculous to anyone who understands the gist of Taleb’s arguments in this and his preceding two books.] Taleb is a first-rate thinker who has delivered some very important messages about the misapplication of statistics, I’m not sure why he feels compelled go all Howard Stern about it–though it does probably sell a few extra copies and I suspect he is genuinely that way.

 

 

pyjamagameMark Law’s The Pyjama Game is in part a micro-history of the martial art and sport of judō, and in part is an accounting of his own experiences in taking up judō at the ripe age of 50. For me the history and evolution of judō is where the book is at its most interesting. However, if you don’t have any martial arts experience–or even if you don’t have any grappling-centric training experience–you may find Law’s discussion of testing and randori (free form training, the grappling equivalent to sparring) intriguing, or invaluable if you’re considering taking up judō, jujutsu, or sambo.

 

mantraSherlockHolmesThere is apparently a cottage industry of writers putting out their own Sherlock Holmes novels, and–in particular–writing about Holmes’s gap years. For those unfamiliar with the literary history of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, at one point he got sick of writing these crime fiction novels and killed off Sherlock Holmes. However, there was such a clambering for the master detective that Doyle resuscitated Holmes. These gap years in which Holmes was believed dead have proven fertile soil for writers who wish to write their own spin on where Holmes went and what he did when he was traveling incognito. I saw a press post for a new one the other day in which Holmes goes to Japan. The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, however, speculates that Holmes traveled to Bombay, and from there to Tibet and eventually to Shangri La. It’s an intriguing premise and offers some good travelogue type description of setting–however as a story it’s not as artfully executed as the Arthur Conan Doyle books.

 

I bought four books this week, two of which–in part–because they’ll help me complete the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge, which I will talk about below.

 

Dinosaurs_wo_Bones

Admittedly, I bought this book, Dinosaurs Without Bones,  not because the subject jumped out at me (though I’m sure it will prove thrilling) but rather because I knew the author about a billion years ago (I know; I should take geological time more seriously when mentioning a book of this subject.) At any rate, we trained at the same martial arts school in Atlanta, Georgia. That disclaimer being made, the topic looks fascinating and I’m eager to learn more about paleontological detective work.

 

GoldfinchThe Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Literature, and so it meets an unchecked requirement for the Book Riot Challenge (recent award winner of one of the major literary prizes.) Honestly, if it weren’t for my desire to complete the challenge, I might have read Tartt’s The Secret History first. The latter books seems a little more up my alley, but I”m eager to see what this critically acclaimed novel has to offer. If it’s engaging, I’ll go back and pick up her first novel.

 

AMillionShadesofGray

No A Million Shades of Gray isn’t a mommy porn book 20,000 times more intense than E.L. James’ book. On the contrary, it’s an intriguing YA book about a teenage elephant handler who escapes into the jungle with his elephant to escape war-torn Vietnam. This book will hit on an unchecked category on the Book Riot Challenge (i.e. YA book)

 

Life of Pi

Life of Pi is a book that I intended to read long before the movie came out, but still haven’t gotten around to it. It was cheap on Kindle, and so I picked it up. I’ve seen the movie, so it’ll be interesting to compare, given how visual the movie was.

 

I’m almost halfway through the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge. The 19 books I’ve completed thus far this year include books in 11 of the 24 categories, including:

 

3.) Short story collection or anthology: a.) 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense, and b.) I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream

 

6.) By someone of another gender: a.) Tears in Rain, and b.) Principles of Tibetan Medicine

 

7.) Takes place in Asia: a.) Quarantine in the Grand Hotel, and b.) The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes

 

10.) A micro-history: Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Postural Practice

 

12.) A science fiction novel: a.) Tears in Rain, b.) The Martian

 

17.) A collection of poetry: Leaves of Grass

 

18.) A book that was recommended: Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga

 

19.) A book originally published in another language: a.) Tears in Rain (Spanish), b.) Quarantine in the Grand Hotel (Hungarian)

 

20.) A graphic novel or comic book collection: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol. 1)

 

23.) A book published in 2014: The Martian

 

24.) A self-improvement / self-help book: Zen Mind, Strong Body