Straight River, by Chris Norbury [Review]

This is a well-written action/suspense story with outstandingly crafted characters. The heart of the story is the relationships between Matt Lanier – a professional bass player and reluctant hero – and his boyhood friends from a small Minnesota town (Straight River). His ex-wife is also drawn into the mystery and his aching desire to reunite with her gives the narrative extra emotional weight. The plot includes several unexpected and poignant twists and is not at all conventional or predictable. It is a classic good guys vs. bad guys adventure with plenty of action to keep you interested.

There are some flaws here, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. For starters, the book is exceptionally well-edited, leaving few blemishes to distract the reader from the story. The plot advances quickly through nicely paced chapters, drawing the reader into the story and then moving along from action sequences to breath-taking interludes before the next action sequence. The hero’s motivations are clear and each sequence is well-crafted and compelling. I had no thoughts of skimming to get to the end because each event along the way was worth reading.

The author’s loving descriptions of the Minnesota settings are also wonderfully crafted, allowing the reader to smell the manure in the barn and feel the cold water of the frigid lake, and hear the jazz in the nightclub. A small farming town can hold much mystery and intrigue and Mr. Norbury makes the settings come alive. If you enjoy rich description, you will luxuriate in this book.

The flaws here are easily overlooked within the action/suspense story. It’s often true with such tales that you should not think too hard about the plot and just go with it and enjoy the ride. That’s certainly true here. The bad guys are one-dimensional and lack much depth to their characters. The central plot involves a millionaire real estate mogul who is willing to cheat, steal, blackmail, and kill to achieve his ends. But the scheme he has cooked up is not illegal, so it doesn’t make much sense why he would employ such illegal and violent means – which opens him up to criminal prosecution – when his scheme could be as easily achieved using tough business tactics. But, he’s a bad guy, so he has henchmen and has corrupt politicians and lawmen in his pocket and is quick to use them to crush anyone who gets in his way. (The underlying real estate scheme is itself pretty far-fetched, but I’m happy to let the author have that one as a plot premise.)

Along the way, there are smaller plot holes in the story and leaps of logic. Matt, the hero, performs feats of courage and comes up with combat strategy far beyond what his character might seem capable. Matt suffers serious injuries, and yet is immediately able to battle the bad guys. There are a few instances of the tech being a bit too easy (e.g., putting a “tap” on somebody’s phone), and the big climax scene on an island on a remote lake has some funky geography. More than once you may scratch your head and ask, “but, how?” It all “works” in the context of the story, but like watching a comic-book-based super hero film, if you start dissecting the plot points, they don’t hold water all the time. It’s easier to get away with that in a movie than in a book.

There are also a few too many segments of the author telling us what the characters are thinking, and spoon-feeding the reader exactly where the plot is going rather than letting us figure it out for ourselves. This also leads to repetition when the characters have dialogue that tells us what we already know. The whole book would have been better if cut down by about 20% to take out the unnecessary descriptions, duplicative dialogue, and inner-thought peeks. Perhaps Mr. Norbury will get there next time.

There are also a few segments where things drag out longer than necessary to get to the next important plot event. The descriptions are lovely, however, so you don’t really mind the lengthy interlude. Still, a few whole chapters could have been cut, and the book reads longer than the 285 pages listed on amazon.

Still, with all of the above, Mr. Norbury does not fall into predictable patterns, particularly with the resolutions for the main characters. This is not a story where all the good guys win out and all the bad guys go to jail. I love that. It’s much more relatable as written and for me more satisfying.

In the end, Straight River, is an enjoyable read and as the first novel in a series featuring the intrepid musician, Matt Lanier, it suggests great promise for the books ahead.


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