Capsule reviews

THE EX. By Alafair Burke. Harper. 304 pages. $26.99.

An attorney represents a man who’s accused of committing multiple homicides and who also happens to be her ex-fiance in Alafair Burke’s latest page-turner, “The Ex.”

Olivia Randall, a criminal defense attorney in New York, receives an urgent phone call from a teenage girl who says she needs her help. She’s the daughter of Olivia’s ex-fiance, Jack Harris.

Harris is an acclaimed writer who lost his wife in a public shooting three years earlier and is now raising his daughter by himself. He sees a beautiful woman in a park, and thanks to a website posting an “I saw you” ad, he gets a response. They agree to meet. The woman doesn’t show up for their meeting, but soon after he leaves, three people are killed in a shooting.

Olivia arrives at the prison to learn the truth. She still feels guilty about how she treated Jack when they were engaged (it didn’t end well). She believes he’s innocent, and so does his daughter.

Jack swears he didn’t kill anyone, but then forensics discovers gunshot residue on his shirt. The evidence continues to build against him, and Olivia begins to have her doubts. Does she believe he’s innocent because of their past or is he truly being framed? Or worse, is he guilty and taking advantage of their prior relationship?

Burke tells a compelling legal thriller that will have readers baffled until the final reveal. Like an onion, every layer peeled off further deepens the mystery. Burke knows how to write, and Olivia Randall is one of her most authentic characters. No one would object if this is the start of a new series.

Reviewer Jeff Ayers writes for the Associated Press.

ORPHAN X. By Gregg Hurwitz. Minotaur. 368 pages. $25.99.

Gregg Hurwitz delivers a masterpiece of suspense and thrills with his latest novel, “Orphan X,” that invokes the best of “Batman,” “The Bourne Identity” and “The Equalizer” films.

The Orphan Program is a secret government program that takes children and turns them into sanctioned lethal assassins. Evan Smoak was told that his designation was Orphan X (the letter, not the number 10), meaning there were at least 23 others. That was years ago. When he became an adult, he took a fake last name and became “the Nowhere Man.” When he’s assigned to kill a fellow orphan, he refuses, resulting in the death of his handler whom Smoak considered his father. He goes underground and leaves the orphans behind.

Years later, he’s working as a freelancer who helps people when they have nowhere else to turn. When he successfully saves someone, Smoak tells that individual to give his phone number to the next person who needs his services as a way to pay it forward. Plus it preserves Smoak’s anonymity.

Then he receives a phone call from a young woman who needs him to stop a police officer who’s using her and others in a sex slave operation. She fears that he’s coming after her younger sister.

What Smoak knows when it comes to lethal solutions for the greater good is the polar opposite of his ignorance of human emotions and trying to fit into the real world. And just when he thinks he can let his guard down, his past returns to haunt him.

The human side of Smoak makes this thriller top-notch. The reader truly cares what happens to him along with the people he cares about and those he’s trying to save in the midst of the mayhem.

Turn off the real world and dive into this amazing start to a new series.

Reviewer Jeff Ayers writes for the Associated Press.

RIVER ROAD. By Carol Goodman. Touchstone. 288 pages. $25.

Grief can not only emotionally paralyze a person, making that individual retreat from relationships, but it also can make that person vulnerable to manipulation by others, as Carol Goodman shows in her intense “River Road.”

Creative writing professor Nan Lewis’ depression over the death of her daughter seven years ago has never abated. She has found solace only in alcohol and her job teaching at Acheron College in upstate New York. But now she fears that her job — her one connection to people — is about to end when she learns at a Christmas party that she’s been denied tenure.

Although she’s not drunk when she leaves the party, she’s distraught and distracted when she hits a deer on a lonely, snowy road near her house. The next day, Nan learns from the police that her favorite student, Leia Dawson, had been killed the night before on that same road, near where her 4-year-old daughter, Emmy, had been killed by a hit-and-run driver. Nan becomes the main suspect until it’s proved that her car didn’t strike Leia. As the investigation focuses on the college’s students and other professors, Nan finds unsettling links between the deaths of her daughter and her student.

Goodman expertly melds the psychological thriller and academic mystery into a compelling story of revenge and grief. Characters are well sculpted as “River Road” explores the friendship and broken relationships that emerge between co-workers. The campus proves to be a hotbed of secrets as each person seems to be hiding something. Even Leia, viewed as the perfect student, has a covert life.

Believable twists drive “River Road” to a thrilling denouement.

Reviewer Oline H. Cogdill writes for the Associated Press.