Archive for July 2022

With Prejudice by Robin Peguero

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As a society, we take on many civic responsibilities as a necessary burden of being part of a functioning community. For example, we begrudgingly pay our fair share of taxes each year, understanding that we all must do our part to fund the things like infrastructure and schools a reality. There are slight annoyances with each of these obligations, but nothing compares, in my mind at least, to the pure stress of being summoned for jury duty. We take off from work, struggle to find parking, and then sit in a room for hours until we are mercifully deemed unfit for the jury and sent home. The banality of it all really gets to me. For author Robin Peguero, however, the potential of being part of a jury marks the impetus for his take on a legal thriller. 

The case in question is the murder of a young woman, Melina Mora. She was last seen with a man who happens to match Gabriel Soto's description. When the police search his house, they find strands of Mora's hair, just enough evidence to charge Soto with killing her. The prosecutor and defense teams both have a heavy motivation to win this case. A conviction in this high-profile trial would all but secure the political aspirations of prosecutor Sandy Grunwald. Public defender Jordan Whipple has just as much on the line. He also happens to have an ace up his sleeve, a hail mary piece of evidence that was recently discovered which he believes has the potential to turn the tables in his client's favor. First, though, he'll have to convince the honorable judge Tackett to admit it. 

The fate of the entire trial ultimately rests in the hands of the jury, a group of ordinary citizens tasked with deciding the fate of the man in front of them. The group runs the gamut from the taxman, to the physician, to the head of the neighborhood watch. Each juror comes with their own story, a unique run at life that leads them to the courtroom. A combination of histories, biases, and values will ultimately converge, reaching a verdict that will impact the lives of those involved for years to come. 

In his debut novel With Prejudice, author Robin Peguero proves that sometimes the people deciding the outcome of a trial can be as compelling as the trial itself. Peguero presents the crime and those involved and then shifts his focus to that of the jury. He jumps around from person to person, often skipping between past and present in the process, methodically building a portrait of each individual who will ultimately impact the trial. This character-focused approach to deep diving into the backgrounds and motivations of everyone involved in an event reminded me of Noah Hawley's Before the Fall. Like Hawley's novel, the separate pieces of With Prejudice are ultimately more impactful as individual components than they are when they come together. Still, the way with which Peguero carefully reveals each character's past in conjunction with the unfolding trial is proof of his narrative mastery. I really enjoyed the way that this novel took a different approach to a normal courtroom drama, and I'll be eager to read whatever Peguero comes up with next. 

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

(2022, 31)


Upgrade by Blake Crouch

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"Being smart doesn't make people infallible. It just makes them more dangerous."

It is finally here! Blake Crouch's Upgrade was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, especially given how much I adored his previous two novels Dark Matter and Recursion. If you haven't already read them, go ahead and add both of those to your TBR list too. His publisher sent me an advanced copy of this latest book months ago, and I read it lightning fast. I've been not so patiently sitting on my review ever since. As it publishes today, I can finally share my thoughts and encourage you to read it yourself. 

The novel opens in the not-too-distant future, a world that has seen today's pressing problems such as climate change, pandemics, and widespread starvation amplified to crisis levels. Logan Ramsay is an agent with the Gene Protection Agency (GPA), a federal organization tasked with upholding the laws against modifying DNA. The banning of this practice came in the wake of a well-intentioned, mass-scale genetic alteration that triggered tragic deaths across the globe. Simply put, in the wrong hands, adjusting an individual's biological nature on the molecular level has the potential to be weaponized by terrorist organizations. Logan and his team are raiding an illicit genetic lab when they trigger a trap and are shocked by a large explosion. 

When Logan wakes, he sees the extent of his injuries. Tiny cuts envelop his entire body. The GPA places him into quarantine, worried less by the injuries than by the potential that Logan was infected by a rogue virus meant to alter his DNA. After days under constant observation, he is released from the hospital, assured that no virus made its way into his body. It is during his recovery at home, however, that Logan begins to notice subtle signs that contradict that assertion. It begins as he beats his daughter at chess, a rare occurrence in his household. Soon Logan can think clearer, recalling minute details from his past with ease. His body changes too. Logan is plagued by intense aches as his bones become denser, his muscles strengthening with each sleep. More startling is his ability to process large amounts of new information, becoming an expert in moments. This new mental acuity sees Logan eager to reckon with his past, a time that saw invigorating progress but devasting results. 

I don't read a ton of science fiction. In fact, I often find works in the genre to be difficult to absorb. Blake Crouch, however, has become the exception. He's long been one of my must-read authors, and Upgrade only further validates this status. The novel imagines a world where adjustments to DNA can amplify traits or characteristics within a person. Crouch daringly shines a light on humanity's apathetic approach to dealing with a global crisis and employs his fiction to propose and question the bold solutions that could be on the horizon. There isn't an easy way forward, and Crouch's novel veers into the moral ambiguity that comes with tackling the complexity of issues on a global scale. He has a knack for layering intricate concepts into a breakneck thriller that unrelentingly propels the plot forward. At the heart of Upgrade lies a cast of characters who ground the futuristic world through universal themes of family, love, and loss. It is in these nuanced characters that the true brilliance of Crouch's storytelling comes alive, drawing the reader deeper into the world he builds, one mind-blowing page at a time. 

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

(2022, 30)

Our Colors by Gengoroh Tagame

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As part of my tenth year of blogging, I've resolved to read and review a wider variety of books. Over the course of the last decade, I read everything from picture books to comics and even a few cookbooks. I was pleasantly surprised when one of my publishing partners Pantheon offered me a copy of Gengoroh Tagame's newest manga, Our Colors. I have never delved into the art, but I was intrigued by the gay coming-of-age story that the work's summary promised. It took me a few minutes to get past reading the book and panels from the opposite side of what I'm used to, but once I conditioned myself to the format, I was enveloped by the rich world that Tagame created. 

Sora is a 16-year-old student who is slowly coming to terms with the fact that he is gay. He's terrified of revealing his true self to his family and peers, especially as he develops a crush on one of his male friends. He is simply too afraid to confide in anyone. One day it all becomes too much to bear, and Sora flees from his school in an emotional panic. He finds refuge in a coffee shop off the beaten path. The owner, an older man, reveals to Sora that he is also gay. The pair strike up a friendship that sees Sora learning to become more comfortable in his own skin. When the elder man's past comes to light, it threatens to destroy the friendship he's built and worse, may force Sora deeper into the closet. 

What immediately struck me about Our Colors is the way with which Tagame builds deep characters and relationships through sparse words and brilliantly detailed images. Each frame deliberately works in service of this story he is telling. He illustrates the way Sora hides his sexuality from his friends and family by depicting him wearing a literal mask over his face, something we the readers see, but that the people he interacts with are blind to. Showing the internal thoughts through images seeped into fantasy helps to reveal the character's emotional journey while juxtaposing the more grounded images set within the real world. All of this comes together to make a coming-of-age story that is subtly moving. I had a minor gripe with an event that occurs near the end of the work, but that does little to take away the power of Our Colors. 

For more information visit the author's website and Goodreads

(2022, 29)

Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz

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Reading a book a week is no small task. Taking on such a hefty goal means I have to be very organized in choosing my reading material. It also means that starting a new series isn't always the best idea. I simply have so many books to read that it becomes difficult to keep up with a series of books. That probably explains why I've left Gregg Hurwitz's Orphan X unread for so long. His publisher sent me the first three books in his series to read and review, but I was hesitant to start the series. With seven books in total and an eighth expected next year, my curiosity got the better of me. I finally read Orphan X

Years ago, a black ops program took children and trained them to be assassins. They became ruthless killers who could discretely take out the kind of targets that would draw too much attention to those individuals or entities that needed them to be eliminated. Evan Smoak was one of those children. The man who rescued him from his life before became a father figure to the young boy. He trained him in combat, and defense, and built a mental fortitude into the boy that would see him become a person of the shadows, the Nowhere Man. 

That was all in the past. The Orphan program was discontinued. These days, Evan lives in a state of semi-retirement. Instead of taking on clients who pay, he helps only those who are desperately in need. For those most forlorn individuals, he is their last resort. He helps them out of the most hopeless situations. The only thing Evan asks for in return is that the beneficiary of his services passes his number along to the next person in need. Thus the Nowhere Man has a constant list of people to help. 

Despite his best efforts, cracks are beginning to form in Evan's life. First, they arise in the form of unintended personal connections, the kind of relationships that bring deadly baggage to a man like him. Then, more alarmingly, someone begins to use his Nowhere Man services to hunt him down. Someone has figured out who he really is. They've tied him back to the discontinued Orphan project and will stop at nothing to bring him down. 

On the surface, Orphan X is an exciting thriller that sees Gregg Hurwitz build his character into an impossible situation. There's only one problem, the main character just isn't that likable. I understand that Evan is an assassin, trained to operate with mechanical precision. That fits the bill for what the character requires, but it doesn't give any kind of personality for the reader to latch onto. Hurwitz attempts to give his character a moral compass by which he operates, but I just didn't buy it. This guy is a ruthless killer who has been conditioned from childhood to preserve himself no matter the cost. Flashbacks to his training and present-day interactions meant to "soften" his personality don't ring as authentic. Without a clear protagonist to root for, the thrills in the plot just don't pack much of a punch. Clearly, other readers have found more to enjoy in this series than I have, so don't take my own reaction as the final judgment on these books. There wouldn't be a long-running series if others hadn't enjoyed this one. Still, I can't see myself committing any more time to continue reading this series. 

For more information visit the author's websiteAmazon, and Goodreads

(2022, 28)

Friday Flicks: The Black Phone

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The Black Phone has been one of my most anticipated films of the year since I first heard it was being made. Director Scott Derrickson and his screenwriting partner C. Robert Cargill, of Sinister and Doctor Strange fame, have adapted Joe Hill's short story of the same name into a supernatural horror film that begs to be seen on the big screen. This marked the first time I've gone to see a scary movie in the theater since before the pandemic. I didn't realize how much I missed the communal experience of jumping and laughing together at all the right moments. There's something about being packed together into a theater, communally experiencing a story, that just can't be beaten. 

The film pretty faithfully follows the short story that it's based upon while naturally fleshing out the characters and scenarios into a more well-rounded length. Young Finney (Mason Thames) has watched his community scramble as local children go missing. The Grabber, as the kidnapper has become known, has lured multiple boys into his van. The kids are never seen again. Finney struggles with bullying at school and an abusive, alcoholic father at home. He takes refuge in his sister Gwen (played by a scene-stealing Madeleine McGraw) who has a no-nonsense outlook on life and isn't afraid to fight the kids who pick on her brother. One day as Finney walks home from school, he encounters his worst fear, a black van filled with black balloons and a masked man who has decided to make the boy his next victim. 

When Finney awakens from a chemical-induced haze, he finds himself in a sparse basement, alone save for the very man who put him here. The Grabber (a devilishly demented Ethan Hawke) stares back, his eyes peeking from behind a ghoulish rubber mask. The Grabber promises Finney that he means no harm and that the entire ordeal will be over soon. He disappears into the house above leaving the boy on the bare mattress to contemplate his predicament. Finney is distracted from his own thoughts by the ringing of the antique black phone on the wall next to him. The phone shouldn't be ringing. The cable connecting it to the wall is cut, making the reality he is witnessing impossible. He answers, but no one is there. Little does Finney know that this phone will be the key to him making it out alive. 

I hadn't read Joe Hill's short story since I first encountered it as part of his collection 20th Century Ghost Stories. My reading of it predates the existence of my blog, so it has been well over 10 years. As I watched The Black Phone, I was struck by just how different this is from other horror movies. Yes, there are plenty of scares and moments that are genuinely disturbing, but the filmmakers never spook for the sake of being spooky. Instead, they have drawn authentic characters who are buoyed by clever writing and fantastic performances by a young cast. The result is a film that draws you in by showing its heart. I couldn't help but empathize with the kids, making it easy to root for them to get out of a terrible predicament. Hawkes's performance as the main villain is nothing short of chilling. He imbues The Grabber with a flair of unpredictability and emotional heft that it is really hard to make heads or tails of his intent. This only adds to the suspense. The plot is methodically constructed, though you don't realize it until the big payoff at the end. The Black Phone is everything I want in a movie, especially an adaptation of a short story. There's a great plot, endearing characters, and a terrifying villain, all coming together to make a thoroughly enjoyable film. 

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