Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Book Review: "The Upshot" (Brad Spencer)

Never underestimate the power of a single incident to change the entire course of a life. In the same way, never underestimate the power of another incident to reset the same life in a different direction.

The suspense-slash-crime thriller The Upshot is about the intertwined lives of three friends: Sam McElroy, Jimmer Cuddy, and Holly Karlan. As children, they went to school together and played tricks on one another. Fell in love early and stayed in love forever.

And then something happened that changed the trajectory of their innocent friendship forever.

Cuddy becomes a drug dealer, beholden to his supplier for a near-endless supply of money and enough drugs to make the past fade in his memory. Sam marries a woman who treats him like a throw-rug, something to be stepped on and pushed around whenever she feels like it. And Holly turns out the worst of the three, as if fate had earmarked her all along to be the one to suffer the most unfairly.

Each of their lives also touches that of Rory James, another grade-school peer, whose decisions at a young age shaped his destiny as the ultimate womanizer, abuser, drug dealer, and criminal. Finally, years after Holly's too far gone (literally and figuratively) to help herself, Sam and Cuddy take matters into their own hands to exact revenge on Holly's behalf, and on behalf of the friendship they once shared with her.

The Upshot is author Brad Spencer's debut novel. Through the characters he carefully detailed into existence, so lifelike they threaten to dive off the page into reality, Spencer explores themes of guilt, love, sacrifice, loss, abuse, betrayal, friendship, vengeance, reconciliation, and the limits of human grief and pain that can turn to motives if left to fester long enough.

For instance, character Holly Karlan might well represent the "lost souls" to whom the novel is dedicated: someone of whom the world took advantage, and whose subsequent downfall was as spectacular as it was devastating, not only for Holly herself, but also for her closest friends, who were helpless to save her.

Spencer's writing is tight, for the most part, in his determination to maintain tension throughout multiple viewpoints from one chapter to another. Dialogue reads realistically, and the characters themselves are easy to picture, whether alone or interacting with one another.

Only two items detracted from the overall impact of the story for me.

First, the story is not told chronologically, and each chapter either jumps back in time to the past or stays in the present. I would have appreciated clearer indications (the headers at the beginning of each chapter in some books, including the year/date and place, may be cliched, but they are effective) as to where each chapter fell along the greater story line continuum.

Otherwise, I found myself confused by whether the events in one chapter had happened in the past or were happening in the present, and before/after which other events in other chapters they'd taken place. I like books that work to ground me immediately in the setting of the story (including era, year, time, and place).

Second, I struggled with what's called "head-hopping" in the trade. A chapter starts out in Character A's viewpoint, but partway through, the viewpoint leaves Character A and becomes that of Character B instead, without warning.

It's a jolt to the reader to be situated in one character's head, privy to just that character's thoughts, sensations, and observations, and then to suddenly find oneself dumped down into the head/perspective of a whole different character. I prefer that the viewpoint character stay entirely the same throughout each chapter/scene at a time; again, I prefer works that keep me grounded rather than keep me guessing.

Nevertheless, if crime, suspense, and thrillers are your genre of choice, The Upshot provides you with all the necessary components to immerse yourself in that world.

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Title: The Upshot
Author: Brad Spencer
ISBN: 978-0692220412
Purchase here:

Disclaimer: I received this book free from the author in exchange for an honest, though not necessarily positive, review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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