The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional weekends.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Entries in Gregg Hurwitz (4)

Wednesday
Mar132019

Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz

Published by Minotaur Books on January 29, 2019

Each Orphan X novel has impressed me more than the previous installment. Greg Hurwitz continues to humanize Evan Smoak, adding substance that most tough guy protagonists lack. I’m even getting used to the subplots, which involve Smoak’s sideline as a protector of the unfortunate. While Smoak’s apparent invincibility is still a little hard to swallow (assaulted by a dozen guys with machine guns? no problem), the action scenes are written with such detail that it is easy to set aside disbelief and get lost in the story.

Smoak’s new plan is to kill the president. This is a fictitious president, Jonathan Bennett, who rose to the presidency from a gig in the Department of Defense, where he sent Smoak, a/k/a Orphan X, on his first mission. The president wants to erase all the details of a 1997 assassination — an assassination that Smoak carried out at the not-so-tender age of 19 — by having Smoak killed. Bennett also had someone killed in a previous novel who was close to Smoak, so Smoak intends to return the favor. Why Smoak’s dirty deed in 1997 is important to Bennett is something Smoak does not immediately understand, but he makes it his mission to find out while he plots the president’s assassination.

Meanwhile, Judd Holt (a/k/a Orphan A) is biding his time in a supermax prison until he gets the chance to kill Smoak. The president releases him for just that purpose.

The subplot deals with Smoak’s Have Gun - Will Travel sideline as the Nowhere Man, a problem solver for those who need his muscular assistance (except that Smoak, unlike Paladin, does it for free). This time the call for help comes from a developmentally disabled (albeit high functioning) young man whose immediate family has been wiped out in retribution for the young man’s failure to follow orders issued by a drug cartel. So Smoak takes a break from killing the president and battling Orphan A to take on a drug cartel.

All in a day’s work.

Smoak’s plan to kill the president and then to escape is worthy of a Mission Impossible movie. Some scenes — Smoak appears in the mist, gives a speech, and when the person he’s talking to looks for him again, he has vanished — suggest that Smoak is Batman without the cape and cowl. There’s even a character who seems to be based on the X-Files’ Cancer Man. But it’s all fun, and even ideas that aren’t entirely original are assembled in original ways. The truth behind Smoak’s mysterious 1997 mission is so plausible it’s scary.

On the whole, this series has been getting better since its inception. The ending assures that the storyline will take a turn after Out of the Dark. I’m curious to see what the Nowhere Man does next.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Mar122018

Hellbent by Gregg Hurwitz

Published by St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books on January 30, 2018

Hellbent is the third Orphan X novel. To appreciate it fully, you might want to read the first books in this series, Orphan X and The Nowhere Man. I haven't read Orphan X. I enjoyed The Nowhere Man, but I was a bit frustrated by it. Hellbent is better.

In addition to being Orphan X, Evan Smoak is the Nowhere Man. He helps people in need, as did Paladin in Have Gun, Will Travel. But Paladin sometimes charged for his services and Smoak gives his killing skills gratis to those in need. He’s more like the Equalizer, the hero of an old television show (although not as old as Have Gun, Will Travel) who has recently been reincarnated in an undistinguished novel by the show’s creator. I didn’t like the Nowhere Man angle in the first Orphan X novel, and was pleased to see that the Nowhere Man subplot in Hellbent occupies a relatively small role.

Early events in Hellbent send Evan on a mission of personal vengeance. The mission is sidetracked when Evan finds himself looking after another government experiment gone awry — a part of the Orphan project, like himself, except this one is a teenage girl. They aren’t the easiest creatures to look after even when they aren’t trained to kill.

The girl, Joey, is sassy. She treats Evan like he’s an old man, which by comparison, he is. That makes her a fun character.

Evan is a more interesting character than most tough guys because he meditates and actually seems capable of learning. Lots of tough guy characters pretend to follow some sort of Zen philosophy that involves meditation before they start killing people (the Steven Segal school of being a tough guy), but unlike those characters, Evan is bright enough to integrate an actual philosophy of life (the one he learned from Jack) into his daily routine. Imparting that philosophy to a 16-year-old girl gives him the kind of challenge that most fictional tough guys never face. That’s one of the reasons I like the second Orphan X novel more than the first.

The other reason is that I bought into the action, which I couldn’t do in the first novel. Yes, there are a couple of moments when credulity is strained (shooting a bad guy through the scope of his rifle with a handgun from a distance), but for the most part, the over-the-top nature of Evan’s antics are dialed back sufficiently to make the story almost credible. Almost is good enough in an action novel.

Parts of Hellbent are midway between sappy and moving, but not so close to sappy that I felt manipulated. The character of Evan takes on greater substance in the second novel, and Gregg Hurwitz sets up an interesting premise for the next book(s) in the series. I’m looking forward to the next one more than I looked forward to this one.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jan162017

The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz

Published by Minotaur Books on January 17, 2017

As an action novel, The Nowhere Man rocks. It’s full of chase scenes, explosions, shoot-outs, and fistfights, some of them quite clever. As an action novel that makes sense, The Nowhere Man is lacking. I took a sort of guilty pleasure in enjoying it, but I found the enjoyment to be almost equally balanced by aggravation.

Fiction often demands the willing suspension of disbelief and I’m happy to do that for the sake of a good story, but sometimes the challenge of believing the impossible impairs my ability to lose myself in the book. That was the case with The Nowhere Man. I liked the action but I have serious reservations about the plot.

Kidnapped American girls who are sold as sex slaves is the latest fad in thriller crimes. Investigate the real-world statistics and you’ll find the crime almost never happens, but exploiting every parent’s nightmare is this year’s way to sell books, and Gregg Hurwitz has jumped on the bandwagon.

Fortunately for teenage American girls who are about to be shipped to Serbia, Evan Smoak, the Nowhere Man, is there to help. Evan is one of those thriller heroes who was recruited by the military from an orphanage and turned into a killing machine. There are so many of them in thriller world that one of them is probably your neighbor. And, of course, the government is trying to track him down and kill him, because that’s always what happens to government-produced killing machines in thriller world.

If it’s easy for abused kids who have nothing to contact Evan, it shouldn’t be all that difficult for the government, with all its resources, to find him. Evan’s ability to stay beyond the reach of his pursuers while spreading word of his existence to anyone who might know an abused kid is my first reservation about the plot.

As Evan is working against a deadline to rescue a kidnapped girl from a container ship, he is himself kidnapped. That leads to a lengthy story that departs from the “dark hero rescues abused kids” theme, changing the plot into “dark hero rescues himself.” While the reason for Evan’s captivity is improbable, the story moves fast and it gives Evan a chance to show off his talent for killing bad guys. The fact that he is given so many chances to kill bad guys instead of being hogtied is ridiculously improbable. In fact, the bad guys almost make it easy for him to kill bad guys, and that detracts from the story.

Near the end, Evan twice shows up in a spot that allows him to inflict mayhem on bad guys with no explanation at all (probably because none could be imagined) of how he got there.

Evan is a little crazy and that’s always an interesting feature in a protagonist, but his craziness is forced. None of the other characters exist in more than one dimension. The primary villain is a bigger cartoon than Snidely Whiplash.

I like the pace of The Nowhere Man. Most of the action scenes are very well done and I enjoyed reading them. The story would probably make a great action movie, because the special effects would distract the reader from all the implausible things the reader is asked to accept. In a book, however, the reader has time to think about those things. On too many occasions, I thought “Why is this bad guy being so stupid?” or “How could that possibly happen?” That makes it difficult to recommend the book with any degree of enthusiasm, despite my appreciation of some of its parts.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Monday
Sep012014

Don't Look Back by Gregg Hurwitz

Published by St. Martin's Press on August 19, 2014

After Eve Hardaway's husband leaves her for another woman before they can take their anniversary vacation to Oaxaca, Eve decides to go by herself. Eve is in the Mexican jungle with a half dozen American tourists, the camp owners, and a man she encounters while rafting in the jungle. The man is practicing throwing his machete at a human silhouette. When Eve finds a lost camera near the man's dwelling, she realizes that the woman who owned the camera was the previous occupant of the hut in which Eve is staying. The camera contains pictures of the jungle man behaving forcefully with an indigenous woman.

When Eve learns that the camera owner never made it home, the group feels threatened. Their fears are discouraged by the camp owners, who worry that publicizing the psycho in the jungle might be bad for business -- not to mention Oaxaca's aversion to having a Natalie Holloway story in the foreign media.

The campers, including Eve, are largely a group of whiners, making it difficult to care what happens to them. It's also disappointing that the man with the machete is such a conventional villain. A long expository chapter in the middle of the novel explains his improbable journey from Pakistan to the Mexican jungle, where he now fights the "holy struggle" by abusing native women. As villains go, this semi-retired jihadist is a cartoon.

Don't Look Back could have been a tighter novel. Too many scenes are repetitive. Characters have the same arguments about their predicament, tell each other how bad their situation is, and waste time when they should be running. The evil guy gives them plenty of time to waste, and ample opportunity to escape, when he could have devoted his energy to the simple task of killing them all. All of that makes the last third of the novel less interesting than the set-up.

The natural threats of the jungle (crocodiles and sweeper ants and deadly plants and flooding downpours) are more believable (and more menacing) than the jihadist with the machete. An extended chase scene through the jungle at the end of the novel is more interesting than a typical chase scene through city streets, but my interest waned as the chase went on and on. The story's path is predictable -- it is too easy to guess which characters will die and which will be unexpectedly resourceful. Although Don't Look Book has some strong moments and moves briskly, I cannot recommend it with any enthusiasm.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS