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Book Review: Sleepless by Charlie Huston (Audiobook narrated by Ray Porter and Mark Bramhall)

January 18, 2014 2 comments

A city in sepia tones with the title of the book in fuzzy white letters over the black sky.Summary:
In an alternate 2010, the world is slowly falling into disarray, partially due to terrorism, but mostly due to a new deadly illness.  SLP makes the sufferer an insomniac, unable to sleep for years, until they fall into a state of insanity known as the suffering.  The sleepless, as those with the illness are known, change the structure of society. Movie theaters are now open 24/7, there’s an increase in sales of odd and illicit things, as the sleepless get bored.  Most importantly, the sleepless have moved much of their energy into online MMORPGs.  Some spending countless hours gold farming there, making a good buck with all their hours of alertness.

Park, an old-fashioned cop, is determined to save the structure of society, one bust at a time.  He’s committed to his work, in spite of his wife being sleepless and being increasingly unable to care for their infant daughter.  So when his boss asks him to go undercover to look for people illegally selling the one drug that can ease the pain of the sleepless–dreamer–he agrees.

Jasper is an elderly ex-military private investigator without much of an eye for sticking to the rule of the law who is asked by a client to hunt down and return to her a thumb drive that was stolen.  He slowly discovers that that thumb drive ended up in the middle of much more than some art thieves and finds himself sucked into the world of illicit dreamer.

Review:
My partner and I both enjoy a good noir story, so when we saw this summary on Audible, we thought it would make an entertaining listen for our 12 hour holiday road trip.  The story was so bad, we could only take it for about an hour at a time and eventually just turned it off so I could read out loud to him from a different book.  I eventually soldiered on, though, because I honestly just had to finish it so I could review it.  In what should be a fast-paced noir, there is instead an overwrought amount of description of unimportant things that slow what could have been an interesting plot down to a crawl.

Noir as a genre is a thriller that generally features a hard-boiled detective (sometimes a hard-boiled criminal).  It’s fast-paced and usually short featuring a lot of grit and mean streets.  One thing Huston does that puts an interesting twist on the noir is he incorporates both a cop who is being forced to turn detective and a criminal-style private investigator.  He features both sorts of main character.  This intrigued me from the beginning.  However, the writing includes far too much description of unimportant things for a crime thriller.  For instance, there is an at least 5 minutes long description of a computer keyboard.  I could literally space out for a few minutes and come back to the audiobook that was playing the entire time and miss literally nothing. It would still be describing the same chair.  This really slows the plot down.

A golden robot holding a gun.On top of the overly descriptive writing, the narration is overwrought, like a stage actor trying too hard.  The best explanation I can make for the narration is, if you have ever seen Futurama, the narration switches back and forth between being Calculon and being Hedonbot.  Now, I admit, the audiobook narrators played these parts perfectly. In fact, I had to check to see if they’re the same voice actors as Calculon and Hedonbot (they’re not).  I really think the audiobook narrators are what saved the story enough to keep me reading.  I kept laughing at the visual of Calculon and Hedonbot doing this overwrought noir.  But that is clearly not what makes for a good noir.  The tone and writing style were all wrong for the plot.

In addition to the writing style, there’s the plot.  In this world that Huston has imagined, gamers have become all-important.  When people go sleepless, they become intense gamers.  If they don’t do this then they become zombie-like criminals.  I don’t think this is a realistic imagining of what would actually happen if a huge portion of the population became permanent insomniacs.  Not everyone is a gamer or a criminal.  There’s a lot more options in the world than that.  Additionally, in this alternate 2010, the art world now revolves around MMORPGs as well. The art work that is now sold is thumb drives of the characters that people make in the games.  There is a long speech in the book about how making a character in an MMORPG is art.  Yes, somepeople might think that. But it is incredibly doubtful that the entire world would suddenly overnight start viewing character building in an MMORPG as an art form.  I won’t explain how, because it’s a spoiler, but the gamers also come into play in the seedy underworld of illegal drugs.  At the expense of a plot that follows the logic of the world the author has created, gamers are made to be inexplicably all-important.

hedonbot holding grapes and apologizing for nothingI also must point out that the science in this book is really shaky.  SLP was originally a genetic disease that suddenly becomes communicable.  That’s not how diseases work.  Communicable and genetic diseases are different, they don’t suddenly morph into one or the other.  Additionally, in the real world, there’s no way an illness would be given a scientific name that is an abbreviation for the common name (SLP for sleepless).  Think about swine flu.  The common name is swine flu, the scientific name is H1N1.  Similarly, the drug to treat SLP’s official name is DR33M3R, which is just the street name, dreamer, in leetspeak.  This isn’t fiction based in true science.

One thing I did appreciate in the book is that the semi-criminal private investigator, Jasper, is gay.  He’s extremely macho, ex-military, and he bangs his also macho helicopter pilot.  I like the stereotype-breaking characterization of Jasper.  It’s nice to see a gay man given such a strong role in a thriller.

Overall, this alternate 2010 noir gets too caught up in overly long descriptions of mundane things and an overwrought narrative style to keep the plot moving at a thriller pace.  The plot features an unrealistic level of importance for MMORPGs and the gamers who play, as well as unsound “science.”  One of the hardboiled main characters is a stereotype-breaking gay man, however, which is nice to see.  Recommended to those who enjoy an overly descriptive, overacting narration style with gamers featured unrealistically at center stage who don’t mind some shaky science in the plot.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh (Audiobook narrated by Erik Davies)

July 24, 2012 3 comments

Blue/green cover featuring a man wearing a gas mask.Summary:
Jasper can’t believe he’s actually homeless, although a lot more people are homeless now than used to be.  But still. He got his BA in sociology. He’s worked hard. How did this happen?  He’s living with a tribe of other 20-somethings.  They keep hoping things will get better, but somehow they just seem to keep getting worse.  The economy doesn’t improve. Home-grown terrorists known as Jumpy-jumps start routinely terrorizing people.  Driving anywhere, having dependable food, actual working police forces, they’re all a thing of the past.  Not all apocalypses happen overnight.

Review:
I actually hesitated over keeping this book on my wishlist, but I’m very glad I did.  I found it to be not quite what I was expecting.  In a good way.

I think a lot of men in particular will enjoy it, because it kind of reminds me of a Judd Apatow film.  There’s this complete and utter loser guy who you entirely hate (and I suspect McIntosh hates too) but who is just so damn funny you keep reading it.  A lot of apocalypse books focus in on a strong leader type, but Jasper is actually a coward who just keeps trying to squeak by.  On top of that, he claims to be looking for true love, but is actually completely lacking in any understanding of women.  One of his “apt” observations, for instance, consists of stating to a guy friend, “Have you noticed that fat women have been getting hotter?” He’s trying to say that the more starvation threatens, the more attracted he is to women who obviously have enough to eat.  But he isn’t philosophical about it at all, and that’s kind of hilarious.  He also tries to impress a girl at one point by commenting on the fact that she’s reading a book, but he says it in such a way that it’s obvious he himself doesn’t read at all, which is utterly baffling in a world that no longer has electricity or other entertainment.  Basically the whole book is laughing at a cowardly dude-bro, and that’s fun.

The apocalypse itself is quite creative.  As the title and blurb imply, it’s a slow one.  Gradual.  Things get bad and just never get better then more things get bad.  It’s a creative mix of economics, homegrown terrorist groups, scientists trying to make things better but actually making it worse, and international politics.  None of it came across as utterly absurd or ridiculous, which shows that McIntosh did a good job.

There are two scenes that are truly horrific, which of course I loved.  There’s a very creative death scene that I think will haunt me for a long time.  (Again, that’s a good thing).  The plot overall is a bit meandering, but that makes sense since Jasper isn’t the most focused or proactive dude on the planet.  I’m a little sad the book ended when it did.  I get why McIntosh ended it there, leaving things open-ended for readers, but….I could have read about Jasper much much longer.  Yes, he’s a guy I would hate beyond all reason in real life, but I guess that schadenfreude factor is what makes the book so fun.

Now, I did read the audiobook, and I have to say I was very disappointed in the narration by Erik Davies.  It does not live up to the content of the book at all.  My main problem with him is that he does that awful thing of putting on what he thinks is a woman’s voice every time one of them speaks, but what actually sounds like a small child and nothing like us.  I actually had to stop and rewind a couple of times to double-check if I was angry at how the book was portraying women or if the narrator was making it seem like the book was portraying women as childish idiots.  Suffice to say, it’s definitely the narration, not the book.  Yes, Jasper objectifies women and basically calls any woman who doesn’t fit into his definition of what a woman should be “crazy,” but the whole book is laughing at him, so really the book is showing how ridiculous it is to view women like that.  The narrator reading women in this childish voice really messes with that whole presentation.  So, definitely don’t get the audiobook.

Overall, then, this is a fun apocalyptic scifi featuring a cowardly loser who is delightful to follow and laugh at.  I highly recommend it to scifi fans who also enjoy slacker flicks, but definitely get the print or ebook versions, not the audio.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: A Cold Night for Alligators by Nick Crowe

Snout of a gator on a yellow background.Summary:
One day on his way home from work, a homeless man shoves Jasper in front of a subway train.  Waking up months later from a coma with medical leave from his job, his (now ex) girlfriend living in his house with her new boyfriend, religious Donny, Jasper decides to join Donny and his best friend Duane on a trip south from Canada to Florida.  Donny and Duane are going fishing, but Jasper is on a hunt for his brother who disappeared ten years ago at the age of seventeen.  He has a hunch he may have returned to what was previously a happy family vacation spot.

Review:
This is one of those situations where I recognize that the book is well-written, but personally I just didn’t like it.  The combination of the plot and characters struck a sour note for me, although I can see other people enjoying it.

I struggled because I simply did not find a single character to like.  I didn’t like Jasper, his ex Kim, her new boyfriend Donny, the best friend Duane, the long lost Aunt Val, well, you get the picture.  None of them were people I could relate to or sympathize with.  Not a single one!  That is rare in a book for me.  I can relate to characters from all over the world and all over time itself, but here. Yeesh.  I mean, it’s bad when you’re agreeing with the villain (who you also don’t like) that the main character is a pussy.  That’s just generally a bad sign.

I also found myself struggling some with the flow of the plot.  It’s rather unevenly structured with random side stories such as an entire chapter devoted to Duane taking a bar bet to eat 19 pickled eggs.  So much time devoted to this point (that was gross to read about) and it never turned out to be relevant.  It felt at certain points like Crowe was writing just to write, and it’s not that they’re badly done scenes, they’re just not relevant to the book.

Similarly, and consider this your spoiler alert, characters escape alligators just a few too many times.  Having one character who is a gator whisperer is fine, but having other characters repeatedly escaping gators is just insanity and unbelievable.  It left me wondering if Crowe has ever actually watched the Discovery Channel.

Overall, this is a book that left me decidedly lukewarm.  The characters are so average as to be dull, and the way they look on the rest of the world left me feeling a bit sour.  I would recommend this book to people who enjoy literary fiction that moves at a slow pace, as well as those interested in a Canadian’s view of Florida.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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