Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Book Review: Deadly Stillwater by Roger Stelljes

Some good, some bad, and (you guessed it) some in between

Deadly Stillwater is the story of Detective Mac McRyan and the rest of the St. Paul Police Chief’s ‘boys’ and their efforts to solve a double kidnapping.  Unfortunately, my review will be all over the map, as there are parts of this book that are extremely well done, parts that are mediocre, and parts that I simply did not care for. 

The good news first.  I found the suspense in this story to be outstanding.  In part, this is due to the heinous nature of the crime.  But even so, the author did an admirable job of keeping my stomach in a knot, as the finale approached relentlessly.  The pacing was excellent.  There are really no downtimes, although there is some seemingly unnecessary repetition of ideas.

In the so-so bucket, I would put character development.  Many of the characters were largely stereotypes, making them and some of the dialog feel stale in places.  But, the players were generally likable, if not all that real.  Parts of the plot were also a bit high on the unbelievability scale, such as a programmer hacking multiple secure databases and creating complex data correlations on the fly.  Consequently, I found myself thinking ‘yeah, right’ from time to time.  But overall, the level of exaggeration was acceptable as a spice that complements the stew, rather than overpowering it.

The bad news, in my mind, was the concept of a hand-picked set of detectives, “the chief’s boys” as they were known, who worked outside the law.  I’d like to say that this team of detectives was presented as antiheros, but the feel of the book was more in the vein of ‘the ends justify the means.’  While I have enjoyed some novels where the protagonist dispensed justice when he/she had no faith in the judicial system, the boys found the law too cumbersome during their investigations, i.e., do whatever’s necessary to find the bad guys.  I have a hard time seeing this idea as heroic and this distaste tended to taint the story for me.
So, overall, if you are OK with a vigilante style of criminal investigation, Deadly Stillwater weaves a tense, well-paced yarn with somewhat stereotypic characters.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Book Review: Game Changer by Douglas E. Richards

The new trite in technothrillers?

Game Changer is a near-future science thriller, as brilliant neuroscientist Rachel Howard and Secret Service agent Kevin Quinn rush to stop a madman intent on using a game-changing technology to his own evil ends.

The book is well-paced, filled with narrow escapes and numerous twists.  While the general theme – the good and bad of messing with people’s memory – comes through from the very beginning, Richards provides an early twist that caught me off-guard and sets the tone for the rest of the book.  If there is a downside on pacing and plot flow, it’s that these general reversals of position become a bit repetitious, i.e., the good guys think they have everything in hand until we find that the villain is still a step ahead, over and over.  One or two fewer reversals would have worked for me.

Douglas Richards is a master at blurring the line between cutting-edge scientific research and suspenseful fiction, which is always a winner with me.  Nothing increases the pucker factor like not knowing whether I need to be on guard now…or if I can sleep tonight.  But I was also reminded that this technique achieves its full impact only if the reader knows something of the relevant science, and in this case, I was not aware of some of the specific neuroscience developments he was building upon.  So, as strange as this may sound, I got an even greater appreciation for the book by reading the author’s note at the end and checking some of the references.  If you are a techno-geek like me, I recommend it.

Perhaps I am reading too much in this genre, however, as I am becoming somewhat tired of heroes who are so atypical as to be more unreal than the technology that is supposed to be at the center of the suspense.  Take neuroscientist Rachel Howard.  Being a neuroscientist is somewhat distinctive by itself.  Then take the fact that she is so brilliant that she is by all accounts years ahead of her peers – yes, years – but is still humble and personable.  I realize that no one wants to read about the exploits of their neighborhood tax accountant, but a story with a few characters that weren’t super-geniuses or beyond world-class athletes or super-secret spooks might be nice.  Six-sigma personalities have become the new trite of technothrillers.

Even taking into account these minor peeves, which are probably mostly unique to me, I still found Game Changer a completely fascinating read, making me wonder anew which of the many variants of this game-changing technology we will see in our future.  Because, it will be one of them.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Book Review: A Cup of Murder (A Roasted Love Cozy Mystery Book 1) by Cam Larson

A break from the gut-wrenching tales

Generally, I read books with a fair amount of tension – anything from murders to end-of-the-world kind of stuff.  But occasionally, I like to give my stomach a break from the constant stream of acid and read a cozy mystery.  A Cup of Murder is one such book.  It is the story of Laila Rook, the barista at Roasted Love coffeehouse, who investigates the murder of the owner of a rival shop when her boss, Jacob, becomes the prime suspect.

True to the cozy mystery genre, A Cup of Murder places the emphasis on untangling competing theories about a crime, while minimizing violence and sex.  And so, it’s a relaxing, easy afternoon or weekend read.  The characters are generally well developed, although not complex.  The pacing is good.  Laila moves from suspect to suspect, theory to theory at a rate that generally holds your interest.  There were a number of other reviews that mentioned grammatical errors, and while I am not oversensitive to this issue – and commit my fair share of these blunders – I was not distracted from the story by grammar, making me wonder if these comments were based on a previous edition.

With the emphasis on mystery, rather than visceral stimulation or gut-retching gore, a cozy mystery needs to weave believable conflicting theories, or a story like this one becomes just coffee with cronies while they play detective.  In this regard, I believe A Cup of Murder could have done more.  Putting Jacob in the role of the prime suspect seemed a bit of a forced fit from the start.  And several of the alternative suspects were a bit of a stretch as well, which left the actual murderer.  In general, it seemed somewhat predictable. 

So, if you are a fan of the cozy mystery genre and don’t necessarily want your own deductive skills challenged too much, you’ll find A Cup of Murder a nice, comfortable read.  And you can save your antacids for the next read.

Friday, December 2, 2016

NaNoWriMo – Final Thoughts

NaNoWriMo Objective:  Write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November

My Final Word Count:  56,647

As I mentioned before NaNoWriMo started, I knew nothing about it other than the acronym was a bit underwhelming and my son had done it.  So, to correct the latter discrepancy, now I have as well.

As it ended, I thought about whether I’d do it again, and I think…probably not.  Not because I didn’t like it, or anything like that.  I enjoyed it a lot.  But it’s really geared for writers who are looking for their voice.  I tend to have the opposite problem.  I tend to become so lost in a story during the first draft that I can’t get away from the keyboard. So, all the motivational emails, word wars, and write-ins were lost on me.  I needed NaNoWriMo to send me an email saying, ‘take a break.’

There’s also the month they selected – November.  It tends to be some of the best weather in St. Louis, surpassed only by the spring.  So even with my writing fixation, it was hard watching the leaves falling on rural trails and not be out there.  I’ll probably go back to drafting novels in January and February, when the only alternative is watching basketball on TV while trying to stay warm.  I’ve even been toying with the idea of shelving both novels I have in first-draft form to work on a third in January.  It’s such a great month for writing in the Midwest.  We’ll see.

And last of all, I didn’t know this, but NaNoWriMo is a charitable organization, helping people get a taste of writing.  So, next year, I’m expecting an audit from the IRS, saying my contribution to NaNoWriMo has to be bogus, because I’ve never given to any organization that’s not health, outdoor exercise, or science/engineering related.  Well IRS, now I have.  And it felt like a worthy cause.

Happy writing,