March 12, 2018

Game Review: Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective

I’ve only written up product reviews of books for this site, since I figure people who follow an author’s website like books. I also read a good bit, so reviews are fairly easy content to create. Aside from devouring novels, I also play a lot of board games.

Since I have small children—and good babysitters are hard to come by—I’ve never had the opportunity to do an escape room. So I was really glad when I learned that escape room board games are a thing. Solving the puzzles in these games involves cutting out, writing on, and destroying components, so these games can only be played once.

In an attempt to find a puzzle-solving game that I could at least pass onto a friend after playing, I came across Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. It had great reviews overall, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Light spoilers follow.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective by Raymond Edwards, Gary Grady, and Suzanne Goldberg
My Rating: ★★★☆☆

I’ve played both The Thames Murders & Other Cases and Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures, and this review is specifically for the second.

In this game, your team plays as Wiggins and his crew of street urchins—consulting detectives who help Sherlock Holmes in a number of cases. For each case, you receive a case file and the day’s newspaper. With the aid of a directory and map of London, the players decide which locations they’ll visit in their investigation of the current case. For each address you stop by, there’s a corresponding entry in the case file which contains a short description of what happens when you visit each place. The challenge is to crack the case by going to as few locations as possible.

All of the game components are high quality, so even though there isn’t any replayability after cracking each case, the game can still be passed onto someone else.

Although I’ve read all the Sherlock Holmes novels and am intrigued by the Victorian Era, each place is described in excruciating detail. I’m not really a history buff, so I really don’t care what every single gas lamp looks like. The descriptions certainly add a lot of flavor, but it’s a ton of extraneous information when all I really want to do is solve the murder. Another thing that really bugged me about the writing was that tons of characters blatantly hit on Wiggins. He must be insanely attractive to have so many women—and men—fawning over him.

At times, my husband and I were able to make leaps of logic that even Sherlock missed. Like immediately recognizing that there was something on the other side of that newspaper clipping. However, for the most part, Sherlock made tenuous connections that were near impossible to find. Oh, didn’t you see that random newspaper article from four cases ago about a suicide? Clearly, that random man was a member of high society and killed himself after being spurned by a former lover, a woman involved in the current case! Well, at least the article says he killed himself, but to deduce the rest, you’ll have to look up his name in the directory and talk to his son.

In the end, Sherlock would solve the case in only a few moves, while we would visit location after location, having more and more people tell us information we had already learned. Even after visiting all the places he’d gone to, we still wouldn’t come up with the same conclusions as Holmes. And we’re not dense—we’re puzzle people. We both enjoy word puzzles, number puzzles, riddles, strategy games, etc. Only after reading reviews did I realize that other people would visit thirty (that’s a lot!) locations and spend four hours on a case. I usually give up after 90 minutes, since I have small children and don’t have the luxury of being able to carve out an entire day to play a board game.

I’m not trying to say that this is a bad game, just that it was not a good fit for me. Obviously, the ratings show that plenty of people loved it. If you enjoy submerging yourself in Victorian London and slowly unraveling a murder mystery without actually being able to solve anything, then you’ll love Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective.

March 5, 2018

Book Review: Silent Victim by Caroline Mitchell

I’ve decided to branch out a little bit and read some non-dystopian fiction, so I was happy to find a psychological thriller with a cool premise.

Silent Victim by Caroline Mitchell
My rating: ★★★★★

When Emma’s husband receives a new job opportunity, her family decides to finally sell their home, the one Emma grew up in and inherited from her father, and move to the city. However, there’s a literal body buried in the backyard—the teacher who pursued her when she was in high school. Attempting to dig up the physical remains of the man she murdered also dredges up feelings from the past.

The book bounces between the present and when Emma was in high school and is told from a few character’s perspectives. Even though the reader knows what will happen to ‘high school Emma,’ reading those chapters is still tense.

Emma’s mental illness is handled incredibly well. She struggles with an eating disorder and all the self-loathing that entails. As her anxiety gets higher and higher, even she has a hard time relying on her senses and recollection of events. And who would believe her wild tales when she claims she’s being tormented by a man who should be dead?

Although I loved looking into the heads of Emma and her husband, I just didn’t find Luke—the schoolteacher—believable. I know there are people out there with sick motives who prey on women, but what kind of young schoolteacher goes into class looking for a teen girl to seduce and terrorize? He is tacitly called a psychopath, and that is all the motivation his character really gets.

I thoroughly enjoyed the ride through Emma’s troubled past and unraveling the details of the present. She’s not the only character keeping secrets, and it was fun to slowly peel back the layers on a whole host of mysteries.

If you enjoy psychological books or women’s fiction unafraid of touching dark themes, then you’ll absolutely love Silent Victim.

February 26, 2018

Bestselling Books: What the Rankings Mean

I was going to post a book review this week, but it’s going to have to wait.

Being an indie author, I try to read and review a lot of books written by other indie authors. I do this to help fellow authors out (reviews can be hard to get), to show readers that there are tons of high-quality indie books, and also to hopefully attract some of other author’s fans to my work. Since traditional publishers don’t tend to purchase ads on Amazon, books advertised on my Kindle are almost always self-published. So when I saw an ad for a book with a nice, but simple, cover and an interesting premise, I gave it a shot.

When I went to the novel’s product page, I thought it was odd that it had a future publication date, yet I could buy and read it now. It also already had loads of reviews. Already, the title was breaking some hard and fast rules for selling eBooks on Amazon’s platform. So what gives?

The novel was being published by Thomas & Mercer, an Amazon publishing imprint.

I found this particularly infuriating after checking the top 20 Kindle bestsellers. Twelve were from Amazon imprints. The rest were a mix of self, small, and large publishers. When comparing the Kindle bestsellers to the USA Today and NYT Bestseller lists (even the exclusive ebook list), there was absolutely no overlap. So, if approximately 70% of ebook sales are on Amazon, how are none of these Amazon-published bestsellers on other bestseller lists?

As an indie author, there are a lot of obstacles to getting traction on a new title. When a title is available for preorder, fans can purchase—but not read—it, however, those sales don’t count as launch-day sales and therefore don’t lift the book to the hot new listings. And reviews can only be posted after the book has been published, making authors scramble to get all the reviewers who read an early copy to post their review on launch day. But this Thomas & Mercer book won’t publish for another week, sits at #2 Kindle Bestseller, and has over 500 reviews.

The best way to rise up in seller rankings is to encourage a spike in sales, which then can get punished as ‘attempting to manipulate the Kindle programs.’ The only alternative is a steady stream of sales which can be achieved by purchasing Amazon ads. But even after putting tons of money into advertising on their platform, they’re still going to show their books to readers more often.

Then there’s the whole Kindle Unlimited program. The payout of less than half a cent per page almost always means fewer royalties than a direct sale, yet every borrow—regardless of the actual number of pages read—counts toward the bestseller rank. Now, if I took advantage of this little quirk to boost a book’s ranking, my KDP account would get terminated in an instant. But if anything appeared to manipulate the ranking for one of their books, there would be no reason to stop it or punish their authors and books.

The ever-changing algorithms that Amazon uses in order to choose which books to display and put in front of readers means that self-published authors have to continuously adapt their methods in order promote their work. When a promotion method is successful and works with the current algorithms, it’s viewed as ‘manipulative’ and the algorithms change, which makes it even harder for authors to sell their books.

I knew going into self-publishing that it would be hard, but I really wish that Amazon would better position themselves as an ally to indie authors instead of an adversary. Sometimes I’m tempted to pull my books out of the Amazon ecosystem and try to do just direct sales on my website.

In the end, I guess the moral is that I’ll need to find my own way to publishing success. Although blazing my own trail will be difficult, I know I can do this, and all the work I put into my author career will be worth it in the end.

February 19, 2018

Save the Library

I’ve lived in several different areas of the US in my life, and this is particularly evident when I check in with friends using Facebook. Recently, some people I went to high school with shared a lovely news article concerning the county I grew up in. See, the (thankfully ex) chairman decided to fund a massive sports stadium that the city couldn’t afford and to make up for the deficit, the county plans to cut funding to the library system, closing as many as eight branches.

This isn’t the first time my hometown has done something particularly cringe-worthy. They also decided not to fund public transportation to deter the spread of ‘undesirables’ and placed stickers in biology textbooks reminding students that ‘Evolution is a theory, not a fact.’ But I digress, I wanted to focus on the library thing.

In contrast, my current local library branch recently underwent renovations, reopening this past week. Although the building has the same size and footprint, clearly a lot of thought went into how the community utilized the facility and the best way to meet people’s needs. There is now a teen area, more classrooms and quiet study zones, and tons of seating, both for curling up to read a book and creating a temporary workspace.

I’m fortunate that I come from a family of readers and book lovers. Growing up, the local library served primarily as a collection of books. My mom would bring her sturdy tote bag, give my brother and I a limit, and we’d peruse the shelves until we had loads of books to check out and bring home. We got exactly one week to pore over our finds before we had to round them up, return them, and pick new ones.

My childhood memories of the library definitely meshes with the definition—a collection of books. The term has grown to include not just physical volumes, but any curated information. Once I was in college, the university library subscribed to tons of electronic journals along with housing digital copies of a number of lectures. But on top of bursting with information, the library was also fundamentally quiet, making it an excellent place to study. That was the first time I experienced people intentionally hanging out at the library.

Where I live now, these public institutions are used by the community for so much more than the knowledge they hold. Every time I visit, there are tons of people there, working, meeting with each other, using the computers, participating in a class, or simply enjoying the solitude. In fact, there are times I’ve gone with my laptop in tow, ready to work on one of my novels, only to find that there’s no table space available.

In the past 20 years, the internet has changed how people get information, and I’m glad that the community I live in has adapted and embraced that change. The library’s mission is lifelong education, and as someone who loves learning new things, I fully embrace this ideology. And as a writer, I love having a place where I can do research, sit down to write, and take the kids on a rainy afternoon.

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