Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Book Review: Stolen Prey (The Prey Series Book 22) by John Sanford

A Tense Plot with a Humorous Backstory So You Can Catch Your Breath

I’m a long-time, John Sanford fan (full disclosure) and Stolen Prey is another excellent read in the now 28-book series.  This one opens with a grisly, multiple murder of husband, wife, children, and pets in a well-to-do suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul.  Obviously, you’ll need some stomach for violence to get into this story, but if you can handle that, you’ll be rewarded with good action and gripping, didn’t-see-them-coming twists.  Because it is a tale of retaliation by a Mexican drug gang, a host of agencies and individuals become involved – the DEA for what they can learn about the drug cartel; the local police to pursue the murderers; and Lucas Davenport, the protagonist of the series, to pursue the thieves that precipitated events by stealing drug money.  It’s an intricate plot, but Stanford does an excellent job of describing the division of labor and the interplay of these characters and agencies.

Complimenting the main plot is a significant backstory, featuring a cameo by Virgil Flowers (the hero of another Sanford series).  Everything about this secondary tale is custom made to feature Davenport’s generally sarcastic sense of humor, from the (smelly) clues they find to the capture of the bad guys.  It provided a nice counterpoint, a break from the tension.

Most of the early books in the series involved demented, serial killers, and like many, that’s where I developed my interest in this author.  Stolen Prey strays from that theme, and the story suffers as a result … but only slightly.  For example, the development of the characters of the three Mexican killers, while less about psychosis and more about a way of life, is solid.  There is also a touching father/daughter moment, where Lucas and Letty, his adopted daughter, bond at the shooting range.  Makes me wonder if this is a preview for a series to come?

Overall, Stolen Prey diverges from Sanford’s bread-and-butter, serial-killer theme, but it’s still excellent, with a tense, action-filled plot and a humorous backstory so you can catch your breath.

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Thursday, August 23, 2018

Nice, But Tell Me When It’ll Do My Laundry

I admit some fascination with intelligent home automation – the thermostat that adjusts to the weather forecast, the front door light that comes on when I walk up (assuming my phone’s in my pocket).  But all too frequently when I'm gushing over the latest, someone says, "That's nice, but tell me when it'll do my laundry."

For everyone who uses that line, this YouTube video is your heads up - it may be time to start working on a new comeback.

(Use this link if the video does not appear:

OK, you're right.  The clothes going into this machine look better than mine, even after they're ironed.  And someone is entering the type of item and placing them carefully into the feeder.  But we're getting close.

Of course, home convenience is one thing.  Work is another, and this is where intelligent automation stands to make dramatic impacts on our world.  The trouble is, no one seems to know what that impact might be.  A headline like 'Artificial Intelligence Will Wipe Out Half the Banking Jobs in a Decade' is followed by another that says, 'AI Robots Won't Kill the Banks.'  About the only thing of certainty is that the future is both exciting and a bit concerning.

My take on what's in store for us?  You'll be able to find out in about 2 months when Retroscape:  A Near Future Mystery is released (see  Yes, it's fiction, but it's vision of the future is based on today's technologies - those little conveniences that will someday reshape our lives.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Book Review: Murder in the Mind (Detective Inspector Skelgill Investigates Book 6) by Bruce Beckham

A Somewhat Abrasive Hero ‘Fishing’ for the Insight That Will Break the Case

Murder in the Mind is the sixth book in what is currently an eleven-book, British mystery series, each novel advertised as a standalone work.  This installment finds the series protagonist, DI Skelgill, called to an isolated, high-security, psychiatric hospital for a routine investigation.  But soon, concerns about petty pilfering are forgotten when inexplicable deaths and daring escapes enter the storyline.  Over the course of the rest of the book, Skelgill uses something akin to an abrasive, Socratic method to elicit thoughts and theories from his team only to discount or disregard them in most cases.  Eventually, however, he fits all of the pieces into the puzzle, gaining his insight while fishing … which appears to be a trademark for the series’ detective.

One of the strengths of the book is the description of the setting, in this case, the Lake District in northwest England.  As (bad) luck would have it, this story occurs during a rainy, dreary stretch of weather and you can almost feel the drizzle seep under your collar as you stand beside Skelgill on the banks of a lake.  The story is a bit slow starting, but then moves at a deliberate pace as the detective collects facts, then lets the solution form in his mind.  The murderer is somewhat obvious, but twists in the details are still good.

There were, however, a couple of aspects of the book that detracted.  One was the writing style.  Clearly, there is a thin line between clever turns of a phrase and wording that is mind-numbing, but for me, this book crossed over.  Consider the description of the hospital as “…an appellation that hints of Bedlam (albeit an authentic eponym – being built on the lower slopes of Hare’s Fell) and an outward appearance that is at once foreboding and forbidding.”  I could almost understand this type of wording if it reflected the protagonist’s speech, but Skelgill tends toward simple statements replete with British slang (although he can be obscure).  A second concern was point of view.  It is third person consistently, but sometimes the narrator knew what Skelgill was thinking and other times, he/she did not.  Whether or not we got a peek into the detective’s thoughts seemed random and so, became a bit distracting.

Overall, consistent use of point of view and more straightforward prose would have helped this otherwise prototypical British murder mystery.

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Sunday, August 12, 2018

Book Review: Last Man Out (A Markos Mystery) by Isabella Adams

Some Serious “Series Building” and A Murder Mystery Too!

Last Man Out introduces us to Dr. Andromeda “Andie” Markos, heroine of the Markos Mystery series.  And by the end of the book, she may feel like your best friend.  You’ll learn about her and the Greek culture, transplanted to Tarpon Springs, Florida, in which she was raised.  You’ll met her three best friends, her mother, her somewhat moody teenage daughter, her philandering husband or ex-husband (depending on who you talk to), and her new romantic interest, Sean.  Sean just happens to be a detective in the local police department and Andie’s high school boyfriend.  Yep, there’s a lot of family, a lot of history, a lot of Greek culture in this first installment of the series, and the author does it well.  Add to that her skill in bringing the sights and smells of this Gulf Coast city to life and this first novel involves some serious building of the series setting and its characters.

But don’t worry; there is a murder mystery too!  Andie treats one of the criminals early in the story, then stays involved in the case through a combination of bad luck, coincidence, and some meddling by one of her friends who wants to fan the flames between her and Sean.  The author maintains the story’s tension skillfully, but overall, the pace is a bit slow, especially for a book in the crime-thriller genre.  There are explosions and murders, but there are also quite a few chapters with only backstory, devoid of any event that moved the plot forward.  But as the first book in the series, this heavier focus on character development and setting building is understandable.  And the finale, while short, is action-filled and tense.

Overall, Last Man Out is a deliberately paced, suspenseful murder mystery, introducing us to an interesting amateur sleuth, complete with nods to her family, friends, and Greek life in a Gulf Coast city.  It’s a solid foundation for a series.

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Sunday, August 5, 2018

Book Review: Alterations (Alterations Trilogy Book 1) by Jane Suen

How Much Would You Risk to Get Your Mind Right?

It’s hard to imagine me ignoring a book about a doctor who claimed to have “…an implant that can control” the human mind (author’s synopsis).  Yes, technothrillers are among my favorites and Alterations involves some amazing tech.  In this first installment in the trilogy of the same name, we are introduced to three women – Gigi, Ellen, Lilly – each with problems that have dominated their lives.  They want a change, they’re desperate for one.  Enter Doctor Kite, who has something for each of them.  So, they roll the dice on a shady doctor and an unproven implant.  Now, what could possibly go wrong in that scenario…?

I enjoyed the forward-looking nature of Alterations, because devices that allow us to share thoughts appear to be in our near future.  Could replacing memories be far behind?  But author Suen doesn’t stop there.  Rather, she creates three variants to Kite’s implants – “one to cure illnesses and heal injuries, one to re-sculpture and lose fat, and one to rejuvenate and reverse the aging process.”  And finally, add the fact that these changes occur quickly – within moments in at least one case.  Now, the forward-looking technology around which the suspense and drama was to be built looks a bit farfetched, a bit of a McGuffin.  But it’s still interesting food for thought.

The pace of Alterations was good, with the characters moving from problem, to hoped-for solution, to complication extremely quickly in this 110-page book.  But character development paid the price.  Flashbacks help us understand the women’s desperation better.  But most of these scenes are a retelling of a memory, rather than having us live their pain.  And the mental anguish that must have occurred before any of them put themselves in Kite’s hands is missing.  Having the reader feel rather than just read about the women’s suffering and helplessness would have improved the suspense.

Overall, Alterations is an interesting and fast-paced look at the risks three women were willing to take to change their lives based on the promise of a new technology.  A closer look into what drove these women would have improved the suspense even more.

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