Archive for June 2022

Fear No Evil by James Patterson


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


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


 “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


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)

The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz


How do you follow up a hit novel? Jean Hanff Korelitz is no stranger to success. She's on the heels of last year's hit book The Plot and an HBO miniseries based on her novel You Should Have Known. I was eager to read whatever she came up with next, and I was lucky that her publisher sent me a copy of her latest novel The Latecomer. Hanff Korelitz didn't write another thriller this time. She's gone about as far in the opposite direction as you could possibly go, electing to write a searing family drama that sprawls multiple generations. Having not read a synopsis before diving in, I was caught a bit off guard by the genre and content, but I pressed on nonetheless. 

The Oppenheimer family of New York is one of those wealthy established clans representing society's pinnacle during the 1970s. Like other prominent Jewish families of the time, they have found the perfect balance between running a family-owned business and socializing with others in their class. This generation aspires to leave their children better off than they are, and the Oppenheimer family is doing just that. Their son Salo is primed to take over everything and ensure a proper future for the Oppenheimer name. 

Salo Oppenheimer's ascent to being the head of the family saw the young man carve his own path. He married Johanna, but instead of buying a home in Manhattan, moved to the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights. While maintaining the family business, Salo grew fascinated with collecting "outsider art". As this hobby flourished, he eventually purchased a warehouse in Brooklyn to house his collection. 

With her husband spending much of his free time away from the home, young Johanna Oppenheimer longed for the companionship that comes with a family. There was only one problem. Johanna was unable to conceive a child. Desperate to have children of her own, Johanna turned to the relatively new practice of in-vitro fertilization. Three eggs were used with a fourth frozen away as a last-ditch effort should she be unable to carry the child herself. To both the Oppenheimer's and their doctor's surprise, the process was a huge success with each of the three eggs successfully coming to term. 

The three Oppenheimer children were siblings in name and blood only. Harrison, Lewyn, and Sally really couldn't have been more different if they tried. As they grew into adulthood, Johanna saw her dream of one big happy family drifting further and further away. Her husband continued to spend his time with his art, and the children, now destined for college, took up their own interests away from each other. In a desperate attempt for one final shot at a family, Johanna decided to use that final forgotten egg to have a fourth child. This 'latecomer' would be born into a fragmented family and be burdened with the duty to try and bring them each together. 

I was blinded by my own expectations when I started reading this book. I couldn't help but compare this quiet family drama with the fast-paced thriller that the author presented only last year. So let's get this out of the way. The Latecomer is a vastly different novel from The Plot. As I slowly overcame those expectations and allowed myself to be enveloped by the time, place, and characters that Hanff Korelitz conjured, I began to appreciate the depth of the novel I was reading. This is a multigenerational family drama with plenty of dry humor and social commentary peppered in. At nearly 500 pages, Hanff Korelitz gives herself ample room to explore themes on family, marriage, race, sexuality, religion, and politics. While I found each of these elements worthy of the time devoted to them, I don't feel that there was a cohesive narrative thread tying them all together. This resulted in an ending that to me didn't exactly deliver on everything that came before it. That being said, I was so invested in the entire saga of the Oppenheimer family that I just had to see it all the way through. The Latecomer is a daring character study from a prominent author that will likely pay off in different ways depending on your tastes and the expectations you place upon it. 

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

(2022, 23)

I'll Be You by Janelle Brown


"We are ping-pong balls, paddled about by fate and coincidence, doing our best to wrestle back some agency from the forces that move our lives."

Elli was always hesitant about going into acting. Why shouldn't she be? She was only a child after all. She was shy and reserved, the kind of kid more content with quietly playing than drawing attention to herself. Why then, you may ask yourself, did Elli become a child actress? The answer is quite simple really. Her identical twin sister Sam wanted her to. The sisters were inseparable. They had that innate connection that twins often do, each able to sense the other's thoughts and desires without having to say a word. Sam was much more outgoing, and she was willing to bring her sister along for the ride. Naturally, the impulses of the stronger-willed sister won out, setting the siblings on a course that would alter the rest of their lives. 

As adults, the inseparable bond of the twin sisters has splintered into estrangement. Elli retired from acting, got married, and created the perfect suburban life as the owner of the flower shop. Sam went in the opposite direction. Like countless child stars before her, she fell into addiction. She clings to the hope of reclaiming her former fame, but the reality is far more depressing. There isn't a likelihood of her ever earning a living as an actress again. On her plummet to rock bottom, Sam made the worst mistake of her life, a moment of weakness and desperation that ultimately severed the last remaining threads of her relationship with Elli. 

It comes as a surprise when Sam receives a call from her father asking for her help. Divorce and the recent adoption of a two-year-old girl have left Elli's life in shambles, a stark contrast to the picture-perfect image Sam long held in her head. Elli left the new daughter in the hands of her parents as she embarked on a mysterious self-help retreat for the weekend. Only she never came back, and she isn't answering her phone. Sam's parents have recruited her as a last resort to come help care for the child. They're certain that Elli will come home in due time, but Sam isn't as sure. Her deep connection to her twin sister tells her that something may be terribly wrong. 

I first encountered the writing of Janelle Brown through her novel Watch Me Disappear. That novel veiled a poignant character study with an engrossing missing person mystery. This latest effort does much of the same but in a very different way. We see the perspectives of two sisters both in the past and present. Brown uses the shifting point of view to slowly reveal elements of her mystery and the motivations of the characters. While the mystery behind the missing sister helps the novel to maintain a swift pace, it is the relationship and deceit between the two twin sisters that fuels much of the suspense and tension. Brown's characters are so authentic that I couldn't help but fall under their spell. The genuineness of the characters helps balance some of the more implausible plot elements, grounding even the most unimaginable story beats into the real world. Overall, I'll Be You is a good thriller written in service of a great character drama. It proves Janelle Brown's narrative prowess and serves as a fantastic summer read. 

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

(2022, 22)

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