Thursday, February 2, 2023

A Lot of Reviews in The Strand

 A Lot of Reviews in The Strand

 

The Strand just published some of my recent reviews of books, DVD’s and streaming productions:

 

In Bonnie Macbird’s The Three Locks, a Sherlock Holmes novel with multiple storylines, Holmes and Watson solve crimes connected to an illusionist, a dysfunctional family, and Watson’s backstory, all during a heat wave.

 

Moving on to an animated superhero mystery, The Long Halloween, features Batman tracking down a serial killer who strikes on holidays.

 

Kate Winslet’s acclaimed miniseries Mare of Easttown, is about a murder that shocks a close-knit community.

 

In a pair of group reviews, I discuss Against the LawBlack Ice, and Night, Neon.  These feature the adventures of a bouncer, a complex Scandinoir, and a collection of Joyce Carol Oates short stories.  In my review of Basil’s WarFinding Tessa, and The Last Commandment, I review a WWII thriller, an alternate take on Gone Girl, and a serial killer striking down assorted alleged sinners.

 

If you’re an Agatha Christie fan, you must see Agatha Christie’s Golden Age: Volume II: a brilliant book covering her clueing and plotting in a terrifically perceptive and detailed manner.

 

Kent State University Press produced four works of true crime history, including a case of an African-American man who was killed by a Baltimore police officer in 1875, and the ensuing legal battle for justice.  There’s also the story of a missing academic and a supposed spy, a serial killer in 1890’s New York City, and the tale of a legendary con woman who pretended to be Andrew Carnegie’s illegitimate daughter.

 

Hugh’s Laurie’s terrific miniseries adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is reviewed here.




 

Finally, Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System is a book by an Innocence Project lawyer describing how faulty forensics has led to wrongful convictions.

 

Please take a look!

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

Chris Chan’s anthology Of Course He Pushed Him and Other Sherlock Holmes Stories Volumes 1 & 2 was released on June 22nd. His first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, was released by MX Publishing.  His Agatha-nominated book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter was published by Level Best Books.  His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.com.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Escape Room Review– The Escape Game Remote Adventures

Escape Room Review– The Escape Game Remote Adventures

 

The Escape Game is a chain with dozens of locations in about fourteen states and Washington D.C., with more planned to open soon.  Even if this chain isn’t open where you live, you can still play several of their rooms virtually, with an employee wearing a camera and serving as an avatar, following your commands and moving objects for you.




 

I played two of these rooms with a family member and won both of them.  Both were entertaining rooms that hit the moderate level of difficulty– none of the puzzles became frustrating, and on the rare occasions when help was necessary, only a little nudge was needed.

 

“The Heist” takes a common premise.  Breaking into the office of a shady art curator, find a stolen painting, and leave before time expires.  You begin work in a small gallery and then explore the items in his office.  Though our avatar did a great job, I believe the in-person experience would be more rewarding, and easier to work as a team.  The virtual experiences allow for up to ten players, but I think more than three, four at the most, might lead to a more chaotic experience.  Better to play with a smaller group of people who know how to communicate and take turns talking.

 

“Gold Rush” has terrific production values, as you start outside a cabin and have to puzzle your way inside, before finding clues inside that lead you to an underground mine, all to find a hidden cache of gold.  Once again, the puzzles were just right, though this one required a few more hints here and there.  I should warn players with mobility issues that they may not be able to use one piece of apparatus that leads them from one room of the game to another, so alternative accommodations should be made ahead of time if you play in person.  If you play virtually, it’s no trouble at all.

 

Other available virtual rooms include “Prison Break,” “The Depths,” “Ruins: Forbidden Treasure,” “Playground,” and “Rugrats.”  I would definitely be interested in playing these rooms in the future.  If they’re anything like the other two, they should be fun experiences.  But play them in person if you can.

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

Chris Chan’s anthology Of Course He Pushed Him and Other Sherlock Holmes Stories Volumes 1 & 2 was released on June 22nd. His first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, was released by MX Publishing.  His Agatha-nominated book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter was published by Level Best Books.  His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Escape Room Review–Save Milwaukee

Escape Room Review–Save Milwaukee

 

Save Milwaukee has changed a lot over the years.  It has two locations, one several floors up in an office building in the Third Ward, the second in an independent freestanding location on Brady Street.  Two rooms are currently available: “The Device” in the Third Ward, and “McSnooty’s Gallery of Fine Art” on Brady Street.  I thoroughly enjoyed both rooms, even though my teams and I didn’t finish in time, though we came close.




 

The premise of “The Device” is that a mad scientist, Dr. Watson Dangerfield, has created a fusion device, that could provide a lot of energy if used properly, but it also could destroy Wisconsin if used as a weapon.  Now, the disgruntled scientist, feeling he never got his due, will detonate his device in one hour unless you deactivate it.

 

It’s a really interesting room, with lots of puzzles of a type I’ve never seen in any other room.  Some are rather high-tech, others lower-tech.  Without going into details or spoilers, Save Milwaukee uses some puzzles that go against the traditional “rush, rush, rush” in order to beat the clock.  To solve some of Save Milwaukee’s puzzles, you must allow for time and patience, because the solution requires thinking and acting in a way different from any other room I’ve played in the past.

 

In terms of production values, it’s an office space filled with items.  That doesn’t make it bad, just not the same level of immersion some rooms feature.  Unlike most rooms, there’s no countdown clock in the room, so you must rely on your own watch.  You can’t ask for clues like in most places.  Clues and hints are written down on pieces of paper and shoved under the door. The biggest problem with the room is that some critical hints are played over a speaker, and they’re just too soft to hear sometimes.  I missed crucial words on multiple occasions, and they weren’t replayed.

 

I should point out that I played an earlier version of the room.  After the pandemic started, the second room in the Third Ward was dismantled and “The Device” was expanded so players could be spaced out– social distancing changed the layout.  I have not seen “The Device 2.0.”

 

The second room on Brady Street, looks very much like an ordinary business from the outside.  “McSnooty’s” is subtly marked as an escape room, but at first glance it looks like an ordinary art gallery.  The premise is that McSnooty uses technology to steal people’s credit card information.  You must find evidence of wrongdoing.  The room is filled with some really interesting pieces of art that are actually puzzles.  It was meant to be a room for parties of at least ten, even twenty, but after the pandemic it was adjust so teams of four or five could play it.  The basic puzzles are clever, but the tech behind some of them is wearing out– some audio clues are hard to hear, and other mechanisms have to be adjusted just so in order to work.  Even though we needed a little more time if we were to win, I had a great time.

 

At least two rooms are currently defunct.  In the runup into the 2016 election, there was a voting-themed room involving a ballot box, which closed down shortly after all of the actual votes were tabulated.  This room was not played by me.  My friends and I did play “The Tailgate,” which used to be the second room at the Brady Street location until it was removed so “The Device” could expand for distancing purposes.  In “The Tailgate,” you search a room for a key in order to open a locked fridge, so you can take the drinks inside to a sports game (I understand the theme shifted from baseball to football depending on the season).  It was a small room, but definitely entertaining with a wide variety of puzzles.  One problem was one key.  It was carefully hidden, but a thin, inch-long key is easily lost, and that’s an easy way for people to get stuck.  We won just tin time, but this was the closest my friends and I have ever been– we won with probably a couple seconds to spare.

 

I understand that Save Milwaukee was sold recently, and ther are plans to renovate the rooms further and replace old equipment.  If there are any significant changes or new rooms, I’d love to go back.

 

–Chris Chan

 

Chris Chan’s anthology Of Course He Pushed Him and Other Sherlock Holmes Stories Volumes 1 & 2 was released on June 22nd. His first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, was released by MX Publishing.  His Agatha-nominated book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter was published by Level Best Books.  His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Escape Room Review–Escape Chambers

Escape Room Review–Escape Chambers

 

Escape Chambers was the first escape room I ever played, and when my friends and I played it, it was located in the Grand Avenue Mall in downtown Milwaukee.  It was a chain, though it seems that over the last six years, a great many of its franchises have shuttered.  The Milwaukee room had four games, and we played “The Assignment,” where we had to search a scholar’s office for evidence of wrongdoing.  I don’t know if there are any more Escape Chambers around the country that have the room available.




 

In my group of three friends, one had played several rooms, and I and the third member of the group were newbies.  I can’t blame Escape Chambers for our trouble with the initial puzzle, but I will say that if we were to try again with our new experience, we would do a lot better.  It took us a long time to get going, but once we did, I was surprised and happy by how well we worked as a team and started solving the puzzles.  

 

In terms of production values, it was pretty basic– a bunch of items arranged in an office space.  It just didn’t seem like more than it was.  Perhaps the most frustrating aspect was the hints– you had three, but to get them, you had to disassemble these interlocking mental loops.  We only managed to separate one pair, and frankly, they took up too much time.  I much prefer being given a certain amount of clues (or unlimited is fine, too), and simply asking.

 

Most of the puzzles were of a reasonable level of difficulty, but of all the escape rooms my friends and I have done, this is probably my least favorite, and not just because we lost.  We came close to finishing, at least, and as a first introduction to the genre, it was enough to get us hooked, but not enough to be an exhilarating experience, especially when compared to many of the other rooms we’ve played over the years.  Overall, the quality was pretty basic and the game lacked the imagination and style of the best rooms.  Our game master said this was the hardest room, and as such, it certainly wasn’t the ideal choice for newcomers to escape rooms. 

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

Chris Chan’s anthology Of Course He Pushed Him and Other Sherlock Holmes Stories Volumes 1 & 2 was released on June 22nd. His first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, was released by MX Publishing.  His Agatha-nominated book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter was published by Level Best Books.  His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Escape Room Review– Breakout Games– Brookfield, Wisconsin

Escape Room Review– Breakout Games– Brookfield, Wisconsin

 

Breakout Games is a chain of escape rooms with branches in nineteen U.S. states (mostly in the eastern half of the country) and South Africa as well.  One of these branches is in the Milwaukee area, in Brookfield.  Featuring six escape rooms, Breakout Games is the second place where I ever played an escape room and the first place I ever won an escape room.  Currently, Breakout Games bookings are for private rooms, so people don’t have to play with individuals they don’t know.

 




The first room I’ve played at Breakout was “Museum Heist,” played with the friends who’ve been my teammates for all of the games discussed in the previous posts.  The plot is pretty standard– you play as members of a group of reformed art thieves who are recruited to recover a piece of stolen artwork.  It was a fun experience, and some of Breakout’s best puzzles.  The puzzles were just the right level of difficulty, and though some of the technology behind some of the steps wasn’t quite as impressive as, say, City 13 or 60 to Escape, it still made for some effective moments.  One of the puzzles definitely required three people minimum to work, so this is not the best room for two-person teams.  Also, one of the puzzles requires that one player crouch on the floor, so players with mobility issues should be warned.  It was close, but we successfully finished the game.

 

The second room we played was actually virtual, as during the pandemic, we were able to play games where our game master wore a camera and followed our instructions.  This one was “Mystery Mansion,” where you investigate a supposedly haunted house in order to uncover the building’s secrets.  This was probably my favorite room of the four I’ve played, as I enjoyed the twisty puzzles and our game master did a nice job making the experience work, and once again, my friends and I succeeded.  The one problem was the design of the room– it just didn’t look like a haunted house, so much as a bunch of items that would be found in a haunted house neatly arranged in a bit of office space.

 

Worse still in terms of production value was “Casino,” which draws you into a James Bond-style world to track down a secret agent in a gambling house.  With the bare white walls, it was clearly just a bit of office space filled with casino games, but at least the puzzles were of good quality, requiring a solid mix of skills and even including a little bit of technology at one point.  There’s logic and observation and even a little dexterity involved, and as you gather up dossiers on the various suspects, you wind up having to keep track of a bunch of clues in order to find the person you want.  There’s also a clearly written note telling you that it’s possible to totally mess up the game if you’re not careful, so don’t act rashly and mess up everything.  I played this room with family members, and it was the first escape room they ever played.  We wound up winning, and it was a triumphant moment.

 

The most recent room I played at Breakout was earlier this week, called “Bomb Squad.”  Apparently, this room used to be called “Undercover Alley,” but due to some thematic elements involving civil unrest and biological weaponry, they changed the identity of the villainous group slightly, made the device to be deactivated a simply explosive bomb that goes boom, and changed the name.  If you’ve played “Undercover Alley” in the past, be warned, it’s “Bomb Squad” now, and the remaining puzzles and design are all the same as the initial version of the game.  

 

“Bomb Squad” is by far the most immersive of the rooms, as it definitely does NOT look like a bit of office space, but instead is made up to actually look like a graffiti-scarred alley in a run-down section of town.  It’s also the most claustrophobic of the rooms.  The room accepts up to seven players, but I think that’s a bit of a stretch.  Five people at most can play the room comfortably, at least in the early portions of the game.  After several puzzles have been completed, there’s a little more elbow room.  

 

One of the problems with the room is that it’s dark.  I realize that this is part of the atmosphere, and many of the puzzles use the darkness to their advantage.  The problem is, even with the one flashlight available to you, it’s hard to see some portions of the room, and since a number of the puzzles can only be solved with notes that have very small print, solving the puzzles can be extra hard when you can barely read vital clues.  Not only that, but one clue requires an arm that’s a lot smaller than mine to reach.  I couldn’t get it, but my sister could.  In Milwaukee, some of the puzzles weren’t working properly.  Two bits of technology didn’t work correctly, and they had to be triggered by the game master.  Furthermore, but we somehow skipped over one puzzle, and I’m not sure how we did it.  Additionally, a couple of the puzzles require you to stoop on the ground to see necessary details.  I’m not sure if all the graffiti plays a role in the game or if a lot of it is red herrings, as not everything was explained at the end.

 

Despite the problems, there’s a lot to like about the room, including some clever puzzles that require dexterity and hand-eye coordination as well as logic.  My least favorite puzzle requires some physical contortions that lead to some highly dubious conclusions.  I didn’t think we’d complete the room in time, but we did with eighty seconds to spare. 

 

There are two rooms that I haven’t played yet, “The Kidnapping” and “Do Not Disturb.”  In the first, you’re kidnapped by a serial killer and you have to escape, and in the latter, you must capture the villain from the previous room at a motel.  

 

Breakout is not my favorite place for escape rooms, but I’ve had a good time with all four rooms, and I think that beginners to escape rooms would be best off starting with “Museum Heist,” “Casino,” or possibly “Mystery Mansion.”  Other branches of Breakout have additional rooms, including “Submarine Survival,” “Hostage” (aboard an airplane), “Island Escape” (where you must survive a volcano), “Runaway Train,” and the one I’m most interested in, a mystery based on “Clue.”  I don’t know if any of these will ever come to Milwaukee, but escape room fans should put Breakout on their list.

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s anthology Of Course He Pushed Him and Other Sherlock Holmes Stories Volumes 1 & 2 was released on June 22nd. His first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, was released by MX Publishing.  His Agatha-nominated book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter was published by Level Best Books.  His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Friday, December 30, 2022

Escape Room Review– Trapped Escape Rooms– Twin Cities, Minnesota

Escape Room Review– Trapped Puzzle Rooms– Twin Cities, Minnesota 

 

During the height of the pandemic, one escape room company proved particularly helpful at helping me stay connected to my friends and have a little fun– Trapped Puzzle Rooms in the Twin Cities, Minnesota.  Though I live a state away, they have some terrific options for anybody living anywhere, as long as they have a reliable Internet connection and an up-to-date electronic device.




 

One of the innovations Trapped provides is audio escape rooms.  With the help of a laptop (or tablet, though phones may not be as effective), you join up on Disqus at an assigned time and then a game master joins you.  You can all play in the same room with a single computer (with at least one exception, which will be addressed later), or you can play in different buildings and even states, as my friends and I did.  In these games, you communicate purely through talking, and your game master narrates the situations, with artwork and certain visual puzzles appearing on your screens at various points throughout the games.  You tell the game master what you want to do, and what steps you’ll try, and the game master tells you if your idea works or not.  For example, you can look at a picture of a desk, and say, “Open the drawer and look inside.” The game master will say, “there’s a red key there.”  You’ll then reply, “Try to use the red key on the red box on the mantlepiece.”  And so on and so forth.  

 

I should point out that most of the puzzles are far more complex than “find a key, put it in the lock, and repeat.”  These puzzles generally include details that can only be performed in the freedom of one’s mind, and require close observation, memory, and creativity.

 

Before I go further, I want to take a moment to mention my appreciation for the artist who creates the illustrations for all of these games.  Seriously, the person who does this is incredibly talented, able to work in many different styles, and able to incorporate clues in clever and stylistic manners.  This person ought to have a thriving career, and I need to commend the artist (whose name, unfortunately, I do not know) for a job exceedingly well done.  Also, all of our game masters were outstanding.

 

My friends and I have played all nine of their audio rooms and won all of them, but more importantly, we had tons of fun.  The first room, “Herbert’s Laboratory,” has you visiting a laboratory with a remarkable secret.  The puzzles include a level of imagination and fantastic occurrences that couldn’t be duplicated in a brick-and-mortar room, and like all of the audio escape rooms, it requires imagination, creativity, and thinking outside the box.

 

These attributes are especially important in “Prehistoric Park,” where you have to survive in a theme park filled with actual dinosaurs.  (I needn’t explain the reference, do I?).  You can’t just use logic on these puzzles, sometimes you have to make an intellectual leap.  At least three times over the course of the game, I said, “This is a really stupid idea, but I’m going to suggest…” I say this without boasting but with amazement that I was right every time.  Once again, the dinosaurs do things in this puzzle that you have to use your imagination for, and you couldn’t replicate these puzzles in the real world, even with the most advanced animatronics.

 

“Super Squad” has you and your friends protecting a science museum, but along the way, each of you gets a special mutant power that allows you to solve puzzles, either alone or in a group, everybody playing to their strengths.  “Heist Heist Baby” has your group working together to stage a theft at a casino.  This room requires two separate devices, as at one point your group must split into two teams and work together while not seeing each other’s screens.  Notably, each room has slightly different puzzles, which require different thinking skills and approaches.

 

“Pirate’s Plunder” has you going on a journey on a tropical island, searching for treasure, and then going on a long sea voyage.  The images are lovely and oil-painting-like.  There’s observational skill puzzles, pirate-themed riddles, and much more.  “Monster Smash” has you exploring a haunted house and meeting a lot of classic horror characters along the way. 

 

If you’re still in the holiday mood, try “Holiday Whodunit”– a Christmas-themed room that’s also a mystery.  Grandmother Winter has been run over by a reindeer at the North Pole– she’s alive, but injured.  Santa recruits you to figure out which one of his reindeer is the villain.  The artwork has a marvelous Dr. Seuss vibe to it.

 

Then there’s “Spirit Train,” a delightful, extra-long game inspired by Hayao Miyazaki, where the puzzles and their lessons are unlike anything else I’ve ever played.  The most recent room is over a year old, “Escape From Escape Island,” where you explore a mysterious, technologically complex island that features aspects of the most popular escape room themes.

 

Though they’re no longer doing it as far as I can tell, a couple of years ago we played their in-person room “The Heist” through the Internet– the room was shown to us through a video camera, and our game master was our avatar, and he handled the items in the room as we played the game. It’s set in an art gallery, and you have to solve puzzles to retrieve a stolen painting.  It was a lot of fun, and if it’s an example of their other in-person rooms, then if you’re ever in the Twin Cities, I highly recommend a visit.

 

If you want to try an audio escape room, Trapped Puzzle Rooms is a must-do experience for escape room fans.

 

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s anthology Of Course He Pushed Him and Other Sherlock Holmes Stories Volumes 1 & 2 was released on June 22nd. His first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, was released by MX Publishing.  His Agatha-nominated book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter was published by Level Best Books.  His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Escape Room Review– Solve Escape Rooms– Waukesha, Wisconsin

Escape Room Review– Solve Escape Rooms– Waukesha, Wisconsin

 

Solve Escape Rooms in Waukesha, Wisconsin is a new business.  It has two rooms open with two more planned in the future.  My friends and I have played one of them, and I can’t wait to see the rest.  

 

The room we played is “Capone’s Cabin.”  When you begin your experience, you’re led into a lounge area and shown a brief video featuring a deceased relative, telling you to check out an old cabin that may have been a hiding place for Al Capone, and he may have hidden a cache of gold bars there.  You have one hour to find the gold.


 



First of all, the production values are great.  It really looks like an actual cabin, and it reminded me a bit of the presentations at the Milwaukee Public Museum.  First you find your way inside the cabin, and then you work on the puzzles.  One thing I appreciated about the room is that it was nice and spacious– there’s plenty of space to move about, and there’s lots of light so you can see what you’re doing.

 

What’s also fun is how the clues come in through a television set.  We only needed a few hints here and there, but most of the puzzles were reasonably challenging but never frustrating.  Some points needed a little more explanation to be put into context, but everything made sense– no huge leaps of logic or overly simplistic problems, and nice, big props– I hate it when most of the objects are tiny little keys that are easily lost or misplaced.  We finished with lots of time to spare.

 

The game master was terrific as well, and what’s nicest of all is that if you win your room, they will donate $25 to a charity such as The Food Pantry, The Alzheimer’s Association, or The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  Our $25 went to help people with diabetes.

 

The other existing room that we haven’t played yet is “14 Floors Below,” where your new landlord has stolen the Declaration of Independence and you have to snatch it back.  If the puzzles and designs are as good as “Capone’s Cabin,” I can’t wait to play it and their upcoming rooms.

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s anthology Of Course He Pushed Him and Other Sherlock Holmes Stories Volumes 1 & 2 was released on June 22nd. His first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, was released by MX Publishing.  His Agatha-nominated book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter was published by Level Best Books.  His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

A Lot of Reviews in The Strand