Book Review: The Quiet Boy by Ben H. Winters

Title: The Quiet Boy
Author: Ben H. Winters
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication date: May 18, 2021
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Legal thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the “inventive…entertaining and thought-provoking” (Charles Yu) New York Times-bestselling author of Underground Airlines and Golden State, this sweeping legal thriller follows a sixteen-year-old who suffers from a neurological condition that has frozen him in time—and the team of lawyers, doctors, and detectives who are desperate to wake him up. 

In 2008, a cheerful ambulance-chasing lawyer named Jay Shenk persuades the grieving Keener family to sue a private LA hospital. Their son Wesley has been transformed by a routine surgery into a kind of golem, absent all normal functioning or personality, walking in endless empty circles around his hospital room.  In 2019, Shenk—still in practice but a shell of his former self—is hired to defend Wesley Keener’s father when he is charged with murder . . . the murder, as it turns out, of the expert witness from the 2008 hospital case. Shenk’s adopted son, a fragile teenager in 2008, is a wayward adult, though he may find his purpose when he investigates what really happened to the murdered witness.

Two thrilling trials braid together, medical malpractice and murder, jostling us back and forth in time.

The Quiet Boy is a book full of mysteries, not only about the death of a brilliant scientist, not only about the outcome of the medical malpractice suit, but about the relationship between children and their parents, between the past and the present, between truth and lies.  At the center of it all is Wesley Keener, endlessly walking, staring empty-eyed, in whose quiet, hollow body may lie the fate of humankind.

This legal/medical thriller kept me turning the pages, but now that I’m done, I feel like I have more questions than answers.

In The Quiet Boy, we follow two timelines: In 2008, a high school boy named Wesley comes out of brain surgery in an unheard-of state: He walks endlessly around his hospital room, eyes open but unseeing, appearing to be “hollowed out”, no one home, no ability to interact or change. In 2019, Wesley’s father has just been arrested for the murder of the expert witness in the family’s medical malpractice lawsuit.

Linking the timelines together is Jay Shenk, an ambulance-chasing lawyer who in 2008 is at his peak of success, well-connected, perfectly attuned to the needs of his client, and able to pull off victory after victory against the deep-pockets hospital corporations who’ll always choose settlement to make their problems go away. But in 2019, we see a very different Jay, one who’s weaker, less robust physically, and clearly a man whose best years personally and professionally are behind him. To add to the confusion, we know that in 2008, his son Ruben was the center of his life and Ruben, in turn, was devoted to his father — but in 2019, the two are estranged and barely communicate or see each other.

When Jay first hears about Wesley’s strange condition, he sees dollar signs. Leaving aside the fact that it’s unclear what happened or why Wesley is the way he is, Jay is certain that he can negotiate a quick payout for the distraught family. But Wesley’s situation is unprecedented, and Jay ignores the warning signs that his case may be slipping away from him.

Meanwhile, in 2019, the family demands that Jay defend Wesley’s father in his murder trial, despite the fact that Jay is not a criminal lawyer. Not that it matters — Richard is determined to plead guilty and wants to move to sentencing as quickly as possible.

As the two timelines weave back and forth, we learn a lot more about Wesley, Jay, Jay’s son Ruben, and the strange man who seems obsessed with Wesley’s case. There’s a mystery here: Is Wesley the victim of a never before seen medical condition, or is there something else going on, a sort of otherworldly entity waiting to break through?

I was weirdly fascinated by this book, but also incredibly frustrated. By the end, there aren’t any good answers about Wesley, although we do finally understand how the first trial went so very wrong and why Ruben and Jay’s relationship fell apart.

The book feels overly long, and while there’s a lot of ground to cover related to the trials, scenes of depositions and testimony and coaching the expert witness make the books feel bloated at times. I had issues with certain details, such as how Ruben was able to track the whereabouts of the witness — there seem to be some pieces missing, and certain conclusions seem jumped to rather than figured out.

A minor nitpick, but one that irritated me, is that Ruben is often referred to as the Rabbi, which is a nickname given to him by a coworker after he requests a day off for a Jewish holiday. It has no relevance to the story, but in various chapters, we hear about what “the Rabbi” is doing rather than having him be referred to by his name, and it feels a little pointless.

I did enjoy The Quiet Boy as a whole, but with so many open questions and a few plot holes, I wouldn’t list it as a top read for this year.


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Book Review: The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

Title: The Red Lotus
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: March 17, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Midwives and The Flight Attendant comes a twisting story of love and deceit: an American man vanishes on a rural road in Vietnam, and his girlfriend, an emergency room doctor trained to ask questions, follows a path that leads her home to the very hospital where they met.

The first time Alexis saw Austin, it was a Saturday night. Not in a bar, but in the emergency room where Alexis sutured a bullet wound in Austin’s arm. Six months later, on the brink of falling in love, they travel to Vietnam on a bike tour so that Austin can show her his passion for cycling and he can pay his respects to the place where his father and uncle fought in the war. But as Alexis sips white wine and waits at the hotel for him to return from his solo ride, two men emerge from the tall grass and Austin vanishes into thin air. The only clue he leaves behind is a bright yellow energy gel dropped on the road.

As Alexis grapples with this bewildering loss, and deals with the FBI, Austin’s prickly family, and her colleagues at the hospital, Alexis uncovers a series of strange lies that force her to wonder: Where did Austin go? Why did he really bring her to Vietnam? And how much danger has he left her in?

Set amidst the adrenaline-fueled world of the emergency room, The Red Lotus is a global thriller about those who dedicate their lives to saving people, and those who peddle death to the highest bidder.

The Red Lotus is a thriller that moves between Vietnam and New York, ratcheting up the tension until it’s impossible to put down.

We open with our main character Alexis, an ER doctor, waiting anxiously at a luxurious hotel for her boyfriend Austin to return from a solo bike ride across difficult terrain in Vietnam. He’s late, and getting later. Eventually, she reports him missing to their bike tour guides, the local police, and the American consulate, which dispatches the resident FBI representative to assist with the search.

After many hours, Austin’s body is finally found. He’s apparently been killed in a hit and run on a steep mountain road.

But we know there’s more to the story, having read a chapter from Austin’s point of view, in which he’s stopped on the road, taken blindfolded to an undisclosed location, and interrogated. Forcefully. Austin is clearly involved in something sketchy, and just as clearly, he’s in way over his head.

After identifying Austin’s body, Alexis sadly returns alone to New York, but certain inconsistencies nag at her. His injuries can’t all be accounted for as due to a hit and run accident. And why did he lie to her about his father and uncle’s service records in Vietnam? She should probably let it go, but one of her skills as an ER doctor is pattern recognition — spotting key facts and connecting the dots to find out what’s really going on. For her own peace of mind, Alexis has to know the truth about Austin and the real reason he insisted on their trip to Vietnam.

I really don’t want to give away anything more about the plot. There are many different point of view characters, and the intricacies and clues pile up quickly.

Early on, we’re aware that there’s something awful going on behind the scenes involving medical research and murky, disturbing science. How this involves Alexis and Austin is one of the driving mysteries of The Red Lotus.

Even as early as about a third of the way into the story, I just couldn’t stop reading. I had to know if my guesses were right (and some were! yay, me!), how the crazy plotlines would unravel or come together, and whether Alexis herself would end up in mortal danger (she does).

Chris Bohjalian is a master storyteller, and his books never fail to surprise me with their intricate plots and compelling characters. I loved how seemingly secondary characters in this book still got their own backstories and, in the case of the PI Alexis hires, a rich life story full of challenges, love, and loss.

Maybe I just didn’t read the synopsis thoroughly before picking up this book, but I was expecting something more focused on the aftermath of the Vietnam War — and while that does come into play, the true pulse-pounding aspect of the story is along the lines of a medical thriller.

As I said, there’s not much more I can say without giving out major spoilers, so I’ll stop! The Red Lotus is a fascinating, disturbing read, and I just couldn’t look away.

If you enjoy medical thrillers with an international setting and a brave, intelligent lead character, check this one out!

Flashback Friday: Coma

ffbutton2Flashback Friday is a weekly tradition started here at Bookshelf Fantasies, focusing on showing some love for the older books in our lives and on our shelves. If you’d like to join in, just pick a book published at least five years ago, post your Flashback Friday pick on your blog, and let us all know about that special book from your reading past and why it matters to you. Don’t forget to link up!

This week on Flashback Friday:


Coma by Robin Cook
(published 1977)

 Synopsis (Goodreads):

They call it “minor surgery,” but Nancy Greenly, Sean Berman, and a dozen others, all admitted to Memorial Hospital for routine procedures, are victims of the same inexplicable, hideous tragedy on the operating table. They never wake up again.

Some traceless error in anesthesia has cased irreversible brain death, leaving each of them in a hopeless coma.

Something is very wrong here. And Susan Wheeler, a beautiful young medical student, hazards her life to uncover the horrifying explanation–a plot so ghastly, so far-reaching, so terrifyingly incredible yet so nightmarishly possible, it will leave you suspended in a state of fear….

I think this was the first medical thriller I’d ever read, and let me tell you: It scared the bejeezus out of me. Robin Cook has written over 20 novels since, but in Coma, his 2nd novel, he introduced popular culture to the terror of medicine gone wrong, and we’ve never quite recovered!

What flashback book is on your mind this week?

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join in the Flashback Friday fun:

  • Grab the Flashback Friday button
  • Post your own Flashback Friday entry on your blog (and mention Bookshelf Fantasies as the host of the meme, if you please!)
  • Leave your link in the comments below
  • Check out other FF posts… and discover some terrific hidden gems to add to your TBR piles!


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