Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz

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Reading a book a week is no small task. Taking on such a hefty goal means I have to be very organized in choosing my reading material. It also means that starting a new series isn't always the best idea. I simply have so many books to read that it becomes difficult to keep up with a series of books. That probably explains why I've left Gregg Hurwitz's Orphan X unread for so long. His publisher sent me the first three books in his series to read and review, but I was hesitant to start the series. With seven books in total and an eighth expected next year, my curiosity got the better of me. I finally read Orphan X

Years ago, a black ops program took children and trained them to be assassins. They became ruthless killers who could discretely take out the kind of targets that would draw too much attention to those individuals or entities that needed them to be eliminated. Evan Smoak was one of those children. The man who rescued him from his life before became a father figure to the young boy. He trained him in combat, and defense, and built a mental fortitude into the boy that would see him become a person of the shadows, the Nowhere Man. 

That was all in the past. The Orphan program was discontinued. These days, Evan lives in a state of semi-retirement. Instead of taking on clients who pay, he helps only those who are desperately in need. For those most forlorn individuals, he is their last resort. He helps them out of the most hopeless situations. The only thing Evan asks for in return is that the beneficiary of his services passes his number along to the next person in need. Thus the Nowhere Man has a constant list of people to help. 

Despite his best efforts, cracks are beginning to form in Evan's life. First, they arise in the form of unintended personal connections, the kind of relationships that bring deadly baggage to a man like him. Then, more alarmingly, someone begins to use his Nowhere Man services to hunt him down. Someone has figured out who he really is. They've tied him back to the discontinued Orphan project and will stop at nothing to bring him down. 

On the surface, Orphan X is an exciting thriller that sees Gregg Hurwitz build his character into an impossible situation. There's only one problem, the main character just isn't that likable. I understand that Evan is an assassin, trained to operate with mechanical precision. That fits the bill for what the character requires, but it doesn't give any kind of personality for the reader to latch onto. Hurwitz attempts to give his character a moral compass by which he operates, but I just didn't buy it. This guy is a ruthless killer who has been conditioned from childhood to preserve himself no matter the cost. Flashbacks to his training and present-day interactions meant to "soften" his personality don't ring as authentic. Without a clear protagonist to root for, the thrills in the plot just don't pack much of a punch. Clearly, other readers have found more to enjoy in this series than I have, so don't take my own reaction as the final judgment on these books. There wouldn't be a long-running series if others hadn't enjoyed this one. Still, I can't see myself committing any more time to continue reading this series. 

For more information visit the author's websiteAmazon, and Goodreads

(2022, )

Friday Flicks: The Black Phone

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The Black Phone has been one of my most anticipated films of the year since I first heard it was being made. Director Scott Derrickson and his screenwriting partner C. Robert Cargill, of Sinister and Doctor Strange fame, have adapted Joe Hill's short story of the same name into a supernatural horror film that begs to be seen on the big screen. This marked the first time I've gone to see a scary movie in the theater since before the pandemic. I didn't realize how much I missed the communal experience of jumping and laughing together at all the right moments. There's something about being packed together into a theater, communally experiencing a story, that just can't be beaten. 

The film pretty faithfully follows the short story that it's based upon while naturally fleshing out the characters and scenarios into a more well-rounded length. Young Finney (Mason Thames) has watched his community scramble as local children go missing. The Grabber, as the kidnapper has become known, has lured multiple boys into his van. The kids are never seen again. Finney struggles with bullying at school and an abusive, alcoholic father at home. He takes refuge in his sister Gwen (played by a scene-stealing Madeleine McGraw) who has a no-nonsense outlook on life and isn't afraid to fight the kids who pick on her brother. One day as Finney walks home from school, he encounters his worst fear, a black van filled with black balloons and a masked man who has decided to make the boy his next victim. 

When Finney awakens from a chemical-induced haze, he finds himself in a sparse basement, alone save for the very man who put him here. The Grabber (a devilishly demented Ethan Hawke) stares back, his eyes peeking from behind a ghoulish rubber mask. The Grabber promises Finney that he means no harm and that the entire ordeal will be over soon. He disappears into the house above leaving the boy on the bare mattress to contemplate his predicament. Finney is distracted from his own thoughts by the ringing of the antique black phone on the wall next to him. The phone shouldn't be ringing. The cable connecting it to the wall is cut, making the reality he is witnessing impossible. He answers, but no one is there. Little does Finney know that this phone will be the key to him making it out alive. 

I hadn't read Joe Hill's short story since I first encountered it as part of his collection 20th Century Ghost Stories. My reading of it predates the existence of my blog, so it has been well over 10 years. As I watched The Black Phone, I was struck by just how different this is from other horror movies. Yes, there are plenty of scares and moments that are genuinely disturbing, but the filmmakers never spook for the sake of being spooky. Instead, they have drawn authentic characters who are buoyed by clever writing and fantastic performances by a young cast. The result is a film that draws you in by showing its heart. I couldn't help but empathize with the kids, making it easy to root for them to get out of a terrible predicament. Hawkes's performance as the main villain is nothing short of chilling. He imbues The Grabber with a flair of unpredictability and emotional heft that it is really hard to make heads or tails of his intent. This only adds to the suspense. The plot is methodically constructed, though you don't realize it until the big payoff at the end. The Black Phone is everything I want in a movie, especially an adaptation of a short story. There's a great plot, endearing characters, and a terrifying villain, all coming together to make a thoroughly enjoyable film. 

Fear No Evil by James Patterson

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James Patterson knows how to write a thriller. He wouldn't be as successful as he is if he didn't. Still, the bestselling author isn't without his detractors. Criticisms include his formulaic plots, extensive use of co-authors, and bombardment of releases each month. Each point is valid, and I've had my share of Patterson books that I've loved and others that I've loathed. Still, when a Patterson book works, I can't help but enjoy it. His Alex Cross series, one of the few Patterson efforts that he writes sans co-author, has been one of my go-to reads since I read the first book back in high school. Last year saw the release of the 29th installment, Fear No Evil. Having read each of the previous novels in the series, I was eager to dive into this one. 

Alex Cross and his partner John Sampson are about to embark on a hike through the wilderness of Montana. They've been planning this vacation forever and fast-tracked it after the tragic death of Sampson's wife. Alex knows his best friend is hurting. He hopes this trip will give Sampson the space to open up about his feelings and finally begin to grieve. Just as they are about to leave, both of their phones ring simultaneously. That's never a good sign! There's been a murder of an undercover CIA agent. The chief has called all hands on deck for this one. Alex and John's wilderness retreat will have to be postponed. 

Alex's wife Bree Stone is on an adventure of her own. She quit her job as a chief detective for the D.C. police last year and has been making her mark in the private sector. Bree's latest case takes her all the way to France. A prominent French businessman has been accused of raping the women who work for him. The clients who hire Bree also suspect the man has been embezzling funds. Bree plants herself directly into the investigation posing as a businesswoman looking to make a deal with the man. The deeper she infiltrates his operation, the more danger she places herself in. Will she be able to bring the man down or will she become his next victim?

Fear No Evil is one of the weaker recent entries in the Alex Cross series. It is clearly a plot that is working to build up toward future installments, setting the stage for a larger faceoff to come. Alex has been taunted by the mysterious figure known only as "M" for several books now. In this one, we start to get more of an idea of who or what that figure actually is. Still, the plot at hand is one of the more generic narratives that's come out of the series in recent years. The strength of the Alex Cross books has always been in the way the extended Cross family has grown and developed over the course of almost 30 books. They mostly take a back seat in this one, and the story sufferers because of it. There are big things happening, but without strong character ties to the events, they ultimately feel shallow. I'm still intrigued to see what comes next, but this is the first Alex Cross book in a long time that I didn't really like. That being said, you know I'll be ready to read the 30th book when it releases later this year. 

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2022, 27)

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

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They hid in a coat closet, the persistent pop, pop, pop ringing throughout the building. Six-year-old Zach looked to his fellow classmates and teacher for comfort, a sign that the terror they all felt would be short-lived. Zach found solace in his teacher. She clung to her students, silently praying they would make it out alive. In a few short minutes, the gunman who entered their elementary school took 19 lives. One of the children lost was Zach's older brother. 

In the aftermath, young Zach is left grappling with the ramifications of his brother's death. The elder Andy wasn't always kind to his younger sibling. Zach is feeling a mixture of sadness and a guilty relief that he won't have to be tormented by his brother again. His parents aren't emotionally available to help their grieving son. Zach's mother is out for revenge against the family of the shooter. His father can't look at Zach without breaking down. With no adult available to help him process his own state of mind, Zach retreats to his secret hideout in Andy's closet. From this safe space, he wills himself to be the agent of healing for himself, his family, and his community. 

I've struggled to put my reaction to this novel into words. As someone who has worked in schools for the better part of a decade and who has countless friends and family members who teach, I couldn't help but place myself into the horrors that Only Child grapples with. For better or worse, Rhiannon Navin has written a work that is as uniquely American as the tragedy she writes about. The entire narrative is told from the perspective of Zach, giving the reader a first-hand look into the life of a family in the aftermath of gun violence. I was reminded of Jack in Emma Donoghue's Room. As Donoghue did in that novel, Navin uses the innocence of her protagonist to explore the different ways that people deal with grief while also rooting her writing in a character that you can't help but attach to. The result is a novel that is as breathtakingly beautiful as it is heartbreaking. 

As I finished reading the novel, I couldn't help but reflect upon the recent school shooting in Uvalde, TX. I'm a lifelong Texan who grew up around and was taught a healthy respect for guns. That being said, I can't fathom that we have done nothing to stop heinous massacres like this from happening. There are no more excuses. We have to find a way to stop these senseless acts of violence. I don't pretend to have all the answers, though I do think that common-sense firearm legislation and a more comprehensive strategy around mental health in our country would be as good a place as any to begin. I'm certain that in a nation as wealthy and industrious as the United States, there is simply no reason we can't work to solve this problem. Books like Only Child serve to show the devastation that will continue to happen if we do nothing. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2022, 26)


The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

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 “We're all crazy, I believe, just in different ways.”

What's a book that you've read because everyone else was reading it? I've been reading a book a week for the last ten years, and every once in a while a title comes along that everyone, from seasoned book reviewers to friends who rarely read, agrees must be read. Over the years those titles have included Gone Girl, Ready Player One, The Hunger Games, The Midnight Library, and countless more. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides has been on that list since it was published in 2019. I tend to wait a bit before reading mega-hyped books, so it isn't uncharacteristic that I've waited this long to read this one. Now that I've read it, I finally see what all the hype is about. 

Gabriel's murder was a pretty open and closed case. The evidence against his wife Alicia was insurmountable. Responding officers found her clad in all white, the gun used to put five rounds into Gabriel's face resting at her feet. What went wrong with the happy couple? She was a successful artist, the rare individual whose creativity combined with business savvy to turn her passion into a lucrative career. He was an equally thriving fashion photographer, the perfect match for his talented wife. Despite all of the evidence that Alicia killed her husband, investigators are unable to ascertain one final piece of the puzzle. Why did Alicia murder Gabriel? They can't expect an answer any time soon. Alicia hasn't spoken a word since that night. 

Theo is a young psychotherapist trying to find his place in his new job at a secure psychiatric facility. He's intrigued by Alicia, who has been living in the facility ever since she was deemed unfit to stand a fair trial. He hasn't been officially assigned to work with her, but the puzzle of her case is something he is unable to ignore. As he navigates the perils of being the new guy in a place filled with peers who seem more inclined to further their own careers than to actually help their patients, Theo does everything he can to put himself in contact with the facility's most infamous charge. With enough time and access, Theo believes he can be the one to unlock her mind and find out just exactly what happened to bring her to this place. 

After reading The Silent Patient for myself, it is easy to see why the book has resonated with so many readers. Michaelides has written the kind of compulsively readable novel that contains all of the elements that I crave in a psychological thriller. His plot is efficient in its simplicity. One character is locked away in her own mind while the other attempts to unlock it. Shifting points of view between the two characters give the reader insight into each one while methodically revealing bits of information that ramp up the suspense and drive the plot forward. Michaelides steers the reader through the labyrinth-like narrative he's constructed, allowing us to attach to his characters while leading us to misdirection after misdirection. It all culminates in a climactic twist that not only shocked me but impressed me with the precision with which it was delivered. The Silent Patient has the goods. It is a complex narrative with a propulsive plot, provocative mystery, and empathetic characters that all come together into an expertly crafted read. 

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2022, 25)

Sleepwalk by Dan Chaon

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With some authors, I know exactly what to expect before I read the first page of their book. That isn't to say that it is a bad thing. In fact, sometimes I read a specific author because I know what I will get with their writing. Some authors, though, are more chameleon-like in their work. Each book marks a new exploration of genre, character, and style. Author Dan Chaon is one of those authors. His 2017 novel Ill Will left me craving even more from the inventive author, and I was happy to accept his latest Sleepwalk from his publisher. 

Who is Will Bear? It is hard to describe precisely who he is or what he does, and that's exactly the way Will wants it to be. He's a man of mystery, the kind of guy who prefers to live his life under the radar. Will has countless aliases that help him maintain his anonymity. At fifty years old, he's perfectly content traveling around the county in his camper van, accompanied by his rescue dog, the only living thing he can truly trust. He makes money by completing dangerous, legally questionable tasks for an underground agency that he's perfectly content with knowing nothing about. In his line of work, connections can be dangerous, so he stays off the grid. Will is troubled when his numerous burner phones begin ringing and the person on the line asks for him by name. Even more troubling, the person on the phone is claiming to be his biological daughter. This is not the kind of baggage a man like Will needs. 

Only an author as adept and courageous as Dan Chaon could write a book like Sleepwalk. I've learned to expect the unexpected with his writing, and this newest novel is no exception. It reads like an epic journey akin to The Odyssey or Don Quixote twisted up with a mind-bending Hunter S. Thompson-like slant. There are many stops along the way that allow the main character Will to reckon with his past and determine which direction his future will take. It isn't always clear that there is a defined endpoint to the expedition, but it is to Chaon's credit that the reader doesn't really care. The fun is in the discovery of this masterfully written character and the various elements that have brought him to this point in his life. Setting the work in the not-too-distant future only enhances the hallucinatory, familiar yet unfamiliar quality of the writing. Sleepwalk is perhaps the most satisfyingly original novel I've read this year and a worthy addition to your summer reading list. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2022, 24)

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