Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest ClineReady Player One by Ernest Cline
Narrator: Wil Wheaton
Published by Random House Audio on 8/16/11
Genres: Science Fiction

Story: B-
Narration: B

Story Summary:

It’s 2044 and the world is in an economic and ecological collapse. Mega corporations hold much of the power and the majority of the population disconnects from a depressing and failing physical world by donning special suits, gloves, and visors to immerse themselves in the globally-networked virtual reality known as OASIS. OASIS allows users to not only seek entertainment but also earn money, attend school, and live a virtual life without having to worry about fixing the real world they live in. This massive electronic world was created by James Halliday, a reclusive videogame designer obsessed with the 1980s. Upon his death Halliday’s unimaginable wealth and controlling stock in his company, Gregarious Simulation Systems, was put in escrow until the single condition of his will was met: someone had to find the “Easter egg” hidden in OASIS by completing a virtual quest for three keys. The quest begins with a riddle that has to be deciphered, leading the egg hunters (known as “gunters”) on an adventure that requires an in-depth knowledge of 80’s pop-culture to progress and pits them against their fellow gunters and against the corporate might of IOI (Innovative Online Industries) who wants control of OASIS. Wade Watts is an orphan living with his aunt in the stacks (think a vertical trailer park) and attending high school in OASIS. He’s a gunter known by his OASIS avatar’s name of Parzival. When Wade discovers the location of the first key, the race to complete the quest is on between him, his only friend Aech, another gunter named Art3mis, the gunter duo Shoto and Daito, and the minions of IOI.

My Thoughts:

Ready Player One is a enjoyable story with a likable protagonist in a future world that is uncomfortably plausible. As a woman who grew up in the 80s, fondly recalls programming on a TI-99 and backing it up to a cassette tape, played Zork, and who still occasionally starts singing “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function?” from the Schoolhouse Rock TV show there was a lot to feel nostalgic about in this book but even without that reference point, the story still stands on its own. I initially struggled to sink into the story. The book started with a lot of info-dumping and I prefer to discover the history of a world gradually through the character’s experiences. Getting the spiel in large chunks from Wade/Parzival was boring. I really liked the realism of how the world (or at least the U.S.) turned into the mess it is in the book because it was uncomfortably realistic and there were moments in the story when I was drawing direct parallels to current aspects of my life/country. The virtual world of OASIS was intriguing and had me wondering what it would be like to navigate a virtual reality.

While I found the audiobook a pleasant diversion, my biggest issue with it is that Wade/Parzival is a character who seems built completely out of wish fulfillment. He’s the geek who isn’t very adept socially and who has a single (virtual) friend. Through the course of the book, he gains money, boosts his character level and skills at a rapid clip, meets a girl, finds fame, tells off the corporations, is suddenly revealed as a particularly adept hacker (excuse me, that should probably be “l33t hacker”), and… I’ll leave you some mystery about whether he wins the prize and gets the girl. He’s also very chivalrous and has a strong sense of honor. All of those are fine qualities but don’t reflect a well-rounded character. That left all the dramatic tension residing in the good vs. evil / geeks vs. greedy mega-corporation paradigm, which I would have liked to be a little more nuanced. In the end, I enjoyed it but can’t rave about the book.

The Narration:

The narration was good. There wasn’t a lot of character voice differentiation via pitch which was a problem when the conversation was between multiple characters who were speaking in single short sentences but was less of an issue when multiple sentences were spoken by a single character because there was a very nice subtle differentiation according to the character’s personality. American and Japanese were the only accents used in the audiobook and the Japanese character voices were very nicely done in a manner that hinted at the accent rather than attempting a strong one. Wil Weaton has the ideal voice for this type of story, managing to capture the youthfulness of the main characters and the geeky nature of the world in which the story takes place.

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

Shatter Me by Tahereh MafiShatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
Narrator: Kate Simses
Series: Shatter Me #1
Published by Harper Audio on 11/15/11
Genres: Post Apocalyptic, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Story: C+
Narration: B+

Shatter Me is the story of Juliette Ferrars, a seventeen year-old girl who has been confined to a room in an asylum for a bit less than a year. Even before her incarceration she was isolated and denied human contact because, as she discovered in the most horrible way possible, her touch can kill. The world outside Juliette’s window has undergone a drastic change since she was a child. People are, for the most part, grouped together in compounds and food is hard to find. Human actions have had a profound effect on the world. Sea-level has risen until water is everywhere, animals are dying, people are dying, and weather patterns have been drastically altered. Not only has the ecology of the planet been significantly damaged, the political structure has crumbled. After the panic caused by the ecological disaster, a group called the Reestablishment took control with promises of order and solutions to diminishing health and rampant starvation but as Juliette notes “…more people have died at the end of a loaded gun than from an empty stomach.”

The sudden introduction of Adam Kent as Juliette’s cellmate is both a welcome and unwelcome surprise. The two have a short-time in which to get to know one another and explore their shared past before the Reestablishment, in the person of Warner, extracts both of them and seizes upon Juliette as his perfect weapon. Warner, the son of the leader of the Reestablishment, maintains control of his troops through fear and torture. He believes Juliette is…well, something like his soul-mate I would guess but he certainly believes that by his side, she will come to relish the freedom and power her deadly touch can give her. Juliette is horrified by her power. She has a degree of inner strength that allows her to stand up to Warner to a certain extent and she refuses to give him a taste of the power she unwillingly harbors so he begins a campaign to manipulate her into recognizing that together they can rule their little corner of the world. The only hope for Juliette is escape but to where?

There are two aspects to the writing in this book that should be mentioned before I go much further. The author uses strike-through text to indicate thoughts or comments which Juliette is choosing not to voice or is avoiding thinking about. This leads to sentences that look like this:

“She is a walking weapon in society, is what the teachers said. We’ve never seen anything like it, is what the doctors said. She should be removed from your home, is what the police officers said. No problem at all, is what my parents said. I was 14 years old when they finally got rid of me. When they stood back and watched as I was dragged away for a murder I didn’t know I could commit.”

The audiobook uses a scratching sound to indicate the presence of just-delivered strike-through text and that worked surprisingly well for me. I say surprisingly because I have an intense dislike for sound effects in audiobooks but it was clearly necessary in this case and not at all annoying although I did wish for some method of determining how much of the previously spoken part was strike-through. I really liked the way this allowed the author to provide both additional insight into Juliette’s mind and graphically display a character’s internal conflict. (Speaking of surprise, I was, surprisingly, able to restrain myself and not write this entire review using strike-through text to give you additional insight into my thoughts on this book. I’m not sure how I managed that.)

The second aspect worth mentioning is the amount and type of descriptive language used as part of Juliette’s character. I have a love for evocative or uniquely phrased descriptions but I found the vast majority of what was employed in this book to be distracting and somewhat over-wrought. An example being:

“The air is crisp and cool. A refreshing bath of tangible nothing that stings my eyes and snaps at my skin. The sun is high today, blinding as it reflects the small patches of snow keeping the earth frozen. My eyes are pressed down by the weight of the bright light and I can’t see through more than two slits, but the warm rays wash over my body like a jacket fitted to my form, like the hug of something greater than a human.”

I had an intellectual understanding that Juliette’s choice of words when describing things was likely reflective of the fact that she was isolated, had little direct human interaction, lived much of her life through books, and was living in a world so changed it almost required new language to talk about but it added a degree of “emo” to an already young and sheltered character that put me at one-remove from her story, a state I recently determined has a significant impact on my rating for a book. At a guess, this will work better with a young adult audience than with the adult cross-over audience.

I like the set up for this story and while it wasn’t necessarily a refreshing twist on Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic (yes, I know they aren’t the same but there are elements of both in this book) themes, there were intriguing hints of a broader implication to the development of Juliette’s power that showed up at the end of the story. The first half of the book revolves around Juliette, Adam, and Warner with almost no secondary characters of note. Granted, it is a first-person narrative but the limited scope of characters for half the book emphasized everything about Juliette’s character that didn’t work for me. It wasn’t only the way Juliette’s thoughts and descriptions were structured, I also had a hard time finding a personality trait to relate to or sympathize with. Let me just riff off this particular incident and then I’ll get back to the main part of the review… OK, you’re captured by a semi-crazy guy who wants to use you to torture people with your touch. He’s already forced you to come into contact with one of his soldiers, causing significant harm to the man. He’s demonstrated that his idea of discipline is killing one of his soldiers who was accused of consorting with townspeople. He had your “crush” severely beaten. You’re trapped, monitored, sexually-harassed, and all he wants in return for agreeing to your request that he remove the cameras from your room is for you to touch him so he can experience your power first-hand. Our heroine’s reply? No, I won’t touch you. I can’t bear to harm someone with my touch, even though you are a creepy-stalker-psycho-killer. My reply? Buddy, show me some skin so I can put my deadly hands all over you! OK, thanks for letting me get that off my chest. Where was I? Oh, right… The second half was where the action began and the introduction of additional and more fully-formed secondary characters added some amusing dialogue and took some of the focus off Juliette’s thoughts, which was a welcome relief. I wish the whole book had been the second half.

Narrator Kate Simses does an excellent job. She has the ability to deliver an authentic sounding teenage (and younger) character voice and is an excellent example of when a minor change in pitch can still make the male/female voice differentiation sound authentic. Although her Juliette irritated me, it was strictly due to the already mentioned traits because Simses delivered her character with an ideal mix of the uncertainty of youth and inexperience combined with just the right amount of backbone when pushed. The inflections she gave Warner were excellent, allowing the complexity of his character to really shine through. Rather than falling into the trap of painting him purely as a bad guy (vocally) she allows the listener to hear his confusion when Juliette won’t use her power and there are a number of other multi-layered delivery choices that I appreciated.

Overall, this book was not as enjoyable as I was hoping and occasionally it was irritating although the action that developed in the second half combined with the slight character development that Juliette experienced saved the overall experience for me.

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

Ashes by Ilsa J. BickAshes by Ilsa J. Bick
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Series: Ashes #1
Published by Audible, Inc. on 9/6/11
Genres: Post Apocalyptic, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B
Narration: B

Alex is a terminally ill seventeen year-old girl who has ditched school, left the home of her aunt in Illinois, and headed for the woods of upper Michigan in an effort to make peace with her past and what’s left of her future. Her trek to spread the ashes of her parents at Lake Superior is interrupted: first by her encounter with an old man and his eight year-old granddaughter and then by an initially unexplained event that kills the old man and briefly disables Alex and young Ellie. As Alex and Ellie struggle to reach help they encounter Tom, a soldier in his early twenties who is on leave from a tour in Afghanistan. As the trio begins to make their way towards civilization they determine that the event that changed their lives was an electromagnetic pulse attack. That attack and the resultant nuclear explosions have irrevocably altered not just their world, but also the people in it.

Despite some issues with the structure of the story and the discovery that the narration didn’t align with my preferred style, I enjoyed this audiobook quite a bit. The descriptions, while not lyrical, are evocative and avoid the common mash of overused similes and descriptors. Ms. Brick has done an excellent job creating events and characters that, although neatly skirting probability, certainly contain the seeds of possibility.  Either her life-experience or solid research makes for a story where the possible is made more believable by a solid grounding in facts.

As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that the EMP was deadly to most people between the ages of (roughly) thirteen and sixty and the teenagers/younger people who did survive have been turned into almost-mindless creatures ruled by hunger and violence.  As we see the “brain zapped” in action, there is a decent amount of gore in the descriptions. For me, it came across as horrible but not true horror. It is described in such a way that it feels more like flipping by The Learning Channel and seeing a surgery in progress: gross, but in a “yep, that’s what it would look like” kind of way rather than scenes written to squeeze the maximum amount of “ewwww!” from events. Additional information is worked into the story in a very organic manner that explains the why, how, and who of those who survived the EMP and I enjoyed the gradual development of the hypotheses.  Alex also finds herself changed but, refreshingly, she doesn’t suddenly develop superpowers. Instead, she gradually comes to understand what is different about her while leaving a lot of room for her new skills to bloom into a larger part of the story.

The characters are well-developed and very human in their mix of positive and negative characteristics and actions. The dangers that Alex, Tom, and Ellie encounter drive action scenes that are well written and very effective at ratcheting up the tension for the reader. In addition to physical drama, Alex’s emotional struggles make her more sympathetic than I might otherwise find her. When Alex reaches the community of Rule, the divide between old and young generates some interesting dynamics. Generation Z (which in this book may as well stand for zombie) is almost completely reviled by the older generation that she encounters on the road. They are viewed as a universally dangerous group and because of her age, Alex faces as much threat from the unchanged survivors as she does from her altered peers. When the community of Rule takes her in, Alex is torn between the seductive lure of safety and a rebellion against the level of control the community and its elders want to exert over her. The cult-like aspects of the community and Alex’s increasing awareness of how she has been changed by the EMP are just two aspects of the story that I would have liked to see developed further in this book.

That segues into what bothered me structurally about the story. Alex and her struggle to navigate through a changed world makes up the core structure of the story but there are several well-developed characters and the start of some very interesting ideas that travel along with her and add their own framework to the plot. There were several times it felt like that framework was stripped away and we once again start with Alex and have to add additional structural components. It was as if the story line that was driving the book forward was shifted off course by new events. Then, rather than moving on to a new section that continues to build tension in anticipation of returning to the previous plot threads with a resolution, new situations and new information is introduced. These new plot lines start building, needing their own resolution, and I lost the narrative tension for resolving the first issue. Then the plot would fracture again. The fact that the tension immediately starts to build again for the new situation is a mark of effective writing but after a while, plotus interruptus becomes frustrating.

I don’t mean to imply that the story is episodic, only that there are quite a few storylines that are unresolved and a lot of really great ideas that aren’t expounded upon. The ending is, in fact, a huge cliff-hanger. Overall, that gave me a certain sense of dissatisfaction although I also have the feeling that if the author can bring it all together and finish building on what is present in the first book of this trilogy, the whole will be significantly more than the sum of its parts (and the first part is pretty darn good).

I find myself very conflicted in rating the narration. Objectively I can recognize the tremendous amount of skill Katherine Kellgren brings to the story. Fully voiced characters, a pleasing voice overall, a nice cadence to the delivery, and the ability to voice the tension that permeates the story were all strong aspects of her delivery but it is that last aspect that tripped me up. There’s room in my listening tastes for narration other than subtle but I found Ms. Kellgren’s to contain a theatrical element that didn’t suit me. Theatrical in this case isn’t meant as a pejorative but simply that it seemed better suited to a stage or radio drama than an intimate listening experience coming through my earphones. During dramatic scenes there was tremendous energy poured into the delivery and I could hear how the building inhalations and exhalations had to be worked into the lines, leaving me expecting a vocal explosion at the end. Representative of that is the last vocally dramatic scene in the story that suddenly sounds muted and actually has a waveform that looks like it had to be artificially modified to lower the decibel level.

My analysis is more a reflection of my personal tastes in narration because I certainly don’t regret going with the audio version over the text version. Consider it my recommendation, if your listening tastes are similar to mine, to listen to this audiobook in the car or at least via speakers rather than earphones. If your preferences aren’t similar, I think the narration will probably wow you.

I found this to be a very good post-apocalyptic story with narration that, for most listeners, will significantly enhance the story. I’d argue that the category of Young Adult applied to this book is done more because of the age of the protagonist than the writing or content.

A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

A Long, Long Sleep by Anna SheehanA Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan
Narrator: Angela Dawe
Published by Brilliance Audio, Candlewick on 8/9/11
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult

I stumbled upon the audiobook of A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan (narrated by Angela Dawe) by chance and am glad of it because I found it to be a compelling listen. It is one of those audiobooks that my mind kept returning to days after I had finished it. It falls in the genre of YA Dystopian fiction (although it could also be termed speculative fiction or soft sci-fi) but is very different from any in that category that I have read and is my favorite read in the genre so far.

Rosalinda “Rose” Fitzroy is awoken (a la Sleeping Beauty) after 62 years in stasis and although the world she wakes to is a future landscape altered by plague, genetic plant modification gone awry, and the monster of UniCorp, the story is not about the Dark Times the world has undergone but about Rose, the gradual revelation of how she ended up in stasis, and an exploration of what happens to those “Sleeping Beauty” left behind during her long sleep. There were some action scenes but so much of my enjoyment with this story was the slow peeling away of the layers of Rose’s past and to reveal any of them in this review would, I feel, diminish the enjoyment of anyone who hasn’t read the book. I admire Ms. Sheehan’s ability to drop the reader into a story with a lot of unanswered questions immediately in play and let the story organically unfold in a manner much more engaging than if she had dropped clues leading to a big reveal at the end.

Rose is a character I could easily have found irritating but instead found sympathetic as she begins to grow and evolve. The flashbacks to her past are perfectly paced throughout the story and give the patient reader a growing understanding of how Rose’s character was formed. In fact, I can’t think of another novel where flashback scenes are more skillfully and less obtrusively employed. There are parts of this story that provoke the reader to consider some typical dystopian themes such as large corporations and the power they wield, genetic manipulation of plants and people, ownership of intellectual property, social infrastructure and its potential failure but at its heart I found this book to be a disquieting meditation on parenting (or rather dysfunctional parenting). It also posed a situation that made for a disturbing metaphor for parenting via medication and what that may teach a child about methods of coping.

My initial thought on the narration was that Ms. Dawe was able to stand aside and let the story speak for itself but really, I think that is a disingenuous analysis of the performance in its implication that little effort was needed/taken by the narrator. This was a very skillfully delivered audiobook. A large part of my sympathy for Rose during the beginning of the story was due to Ms. Dawe’s ability to voice Rose with the weight of her entire past present in her character, even though the listener is unaware of the events that shaped her until much later and will only subconsciously recognize the vocal characterization… or maybe I’m just trying too hard to explain that most narrators would give Rose more whine and a poor-me tone based on her circumstances at the start of the story and I’m glad that wasn’t there. The narration captures the characters’ vocal tics as described by the author and I was particularly pleased with the natural sounding voices of YA characters and the delivery of the lines that encapsulate the uncertainty and emotional exigency of youth.

Character-driven, compelling, and disquieting; this was an excellent audiobook.