Audiobook Review: The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns

4 04 2013

The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns

Read by George Newbern

Dreamscape Audio

Length: 13 Hrs 34 Min

Genre: Literary Suspense

Quick Thoughts: The Burn Palace is a beautifully written tale full of wonderfully absurd characters, strange surreal events and horrific acts of violence and violation told is a disconcerting style that is both thrilling and frustrating. It’s like an intricate puzzle that comes together beautifully yet leaves you with a handful of unused pieces you don‘t exactly know what to do with.

Grade: B

I often hear people lament those good old small town days where everyone knew each other and kept an eye out for strangers and danger and stranger danger. I never experienced that. I have always lived in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area and only rarely even knew the names of my neighbors. I was always lucky enough where by the time I reached the next block, I was walking in anonymity, far from any nosy neighbors who may tell my mother what nefarious deeds I was up to. I can understand longing for a time when neighbors were neighborly, but people must remember I grew up on Stephen King. I read tales of small towns with dark secrets and twisted evil. I don’t want to know my neighbors. I don’t want to know what dark secrets lie in their hearts or how the choose to spend their time when the lights are off and no one is paying attention. For all I know, the upstairs neighbors could be performing cabalistic rituals and animal sacrifice, and I’m happy as long as they don’t bang around too much when they are getting their kids ready for school in the morning. I’m happy with the nod my head and smile relationship I have with the guy next door and have no need to know that his inner dialogue consists of thinking of all the different ways he would dispose of my corpse after my torturous murder. You know why I don’t want to know more about my neighbors because I’m damn sure they probably don’t want to know about me. Would you really want to know that the guy next door to you enjoys listening to tale involving hordes of undead infected humans devouring the land one brain at a time? For Fun! Really, we are all better off. Let my neighbors perform some ancient ritual that unleashes Cthulhu from his inter-dimensional prison to eat the souls of the wicked as long as they keep the chanting down while I’m watching Doctor Who.

Brewster is a small, quiet Rhode Island town that nothing of note ever really happens in, at least on the surface. When a baby goes missing from the local hospital and is replaced by a snake, the town begins to unravel leading to a string of violence, mayhem and maybe even something supernatural. The Burn Palace is a character rich genre blending tale of small town paranoia, occultism and murder with affective results. Dobyns creates a mosaic of characters, where their dark secrets and hidden motivations become just as essential to the plot as the evil acts that have thrown this sleepy town for a loop. Dobyns develops each character so intricately that they just jump off the page. He tells the tale using an omniscient third person narrator making it seem almost as if the town itself was telling the tale. While this created a lot of wonderful moments in the tale, it also made the story a bit unbalanced. Dobyns transitions from one character to the next is an almost surreal manner opening a lot of story threads along the way, and never quite wrapping the vast majority of them up. While the prose was relatively straight forward, it gave it an airy almost intangible feel, where just as you began to grasp onto one element of the plot, it slipped through your fingers leaving you to chase after the next tangent. It created an atmospheric mood full of clever humor, creepy moments and horrific acts that mesmerized the reader but didn’t always serve the story well. This is the gist of my mixed feelings with The Burn Palace. I loved listening to it. I loved the characters who were all so vibrant and real. I loved the clever way that certain elements played into the overall plot while others were just there to add color. Yet, I felt like I do at the end of a long running TV series finale, full of "what about this, and what about that." I enjoyed the hell out of listening to the tale, but I also felt frustrated along the way. Overall, The Burn Palace is a beautifully written tale full of wonderfully absurd characters, strange surreal events and horrific acts of violence and violation told is a disconcerting style that is both thrilling and frustrating. It’s like an intricate puzzle that comes together beautifully yet leaves you with a handful of unused pieces you don‘t exactly know what to do with.

Let me first say that I absolutely loved George Newbern’s narration of The Burn Place. For The Burn Palace to work, the narrator must become a character of sort, and not just some unbiased observer. He guides you through the tale, taking you from character to character with a sort of knowingness, exposing each character for who they truly are. Newbern does this wonderfully, injecting personality into the prose, guiding the listener with a wink and a nudge. That being said, I think I would have enjoyed this novel more in print than audio. It’s not an issue with the production at all, but in the style of the book. Dobyns flowing transitions probably worked better with visual cues than here in audio. The transitions were so fast and so smooth that at times it took you a while to figure out that anything even had changed. Often, throughout the audio, I was like, "Ummm. Wait… what character are we on now?" These transitions required more focus from the listener than usual during an audiobook. In fact, I really wished that this audio came with a cast of characters, because, although every character was so vivid and real, the rapid change from one to the next often made me have to stop for a moment to remember the new character’s backstory. Not that it was a bad listen, I really enjoyed it. If you are someone who listens strictly to audio, by all means, give this one a go, but if it’s a choice for you between print and audio, well, I would probably recommend trying it first in print.

Note: Thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

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Audiobook Review: The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

25 10 2012

The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams (Bobby Dollar, Bk. 1)

Read by George Newbern

Penguin Audio/DAW

Length: 15 Hrs 40 Min

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Quick Thoughts: The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a gritty Angelic Noir urban Fantasy filled with breakneck action, strange monsters and a wide array of intriguing characters, none of which are really human. Williams builds a brilliant world expanding traditional Judeo Christian mythology in fascinating ways. While at times I had trouble warming up to the main character, the world he inhabits is one I enjoyed very much.

Grade: B+

It seems that angels are all the rage of late. I’m not complaining. I happen to find Christian mythology fascinating, particularly the mythological aspects they never taught you in Sunday School. Over the past few years, some of my favorite books have taken place in Hell, including Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, and John Connolly’s The Infernals. Yet, there is something problematic with books seeped in much of the Christian mythos, at least for me. You see, as someone who grew up in the church, yet who has fallen away from it in my adult years, there is still a part of me that believes a lot of this stuff. Now, I am not talking about the great generalities. Not the ideas of whether or not there is a god. I personally believe that there is something beyond our understanding in this universe, and that any human attempts to define it are simply futile. Yet, what worries me are all the trappings, many of which poke at me from the deepest parts of my soul. Bobby Dollar, the main character in The Dirty Streets of Heaven, is an angelic advocate. Basically, he’s the court appointed defense lawyer who is trying the keep you out of hell. There are many factors that an angel, or the demonic equivalent can use to justify you ending up either in glory, damnation or somewhere in between, and it rarely came down to a simple question of whether you are a good person. Now, I believe I am a good person, but I know that I have done some pretty shitty things in my life. Are the good things I’ve done enough to counterbalance the shit I rolled myself in or am I destined to have my advocate plead me down to 1000 years in purgatory, undergoing something unpleasant? My years in Sunday School and filling the pews at my church have opened my eyes to a broad array of sins that I know I have committed, even if they seem like petty offenses. So, yes, while I love books about angels and demons and the dispensation of souls, they often cause my rational side to battle my upbringing, with one general thought breaking through, in the words of one of my favorite bands… “I don’t want to go to Hell. Nobody in their right mind wants to.”

Bobby Dollar is just an angel, living in San Judas doing his job as a heavenly Advocate, and hanging with his angelic buddies at the local bar. Then one day, he gets called to a case to advocate for a Millionaire Philanthropist who just killed himself, yet when he gets there, the soul is missing, causing an uproar above and below. As Bobby begins to look into the strange situation, a demonic prosecutor is brutally murdered, and a strange beast tries to issue the same fate to Bobby. Now the angel must get the bottom of the situation before he ends up dead or worse. The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a gritty Angelic Noir urban Fantasy filled with breakneck action, strange monsters and a wide array of intriguing characters, none of which are really human. Williams builds a brilliant world expanding traditional Judeo Christian mythology in fascinating ways. William manages to describe celestial places and beings in a manner which is both vivid and ethereal, creating some striking beautiful images. His characters are full of such detail, bringing them alive in unique and sometimes grotesque ways. Williams gives every character, no matter how minor, descriptive depths. As Bobby Dollar enters a room, the setting becomes less important than the strange denizens that fill it, giving each setting an almost shifting incorporeal feel. It effectively creates a mood in the writing that fits the story splendidly. The plot itself is complicated but fascinating, and while it often gets sidetracked, the underlining mystery is still the driving force of the narrative. I found so much of what Williams does here fascinating, yet, I don’t think I connected with the main character as much as I have with other Urban Fantasy protagonists. While I thought Bobby Dollar was well done, I never really warmed up to him. I never felt I got a consistent grasp on his motivations or rationales for his decisions. There is very much a “by the seat of his pants” process to Bobby Dollar, and I wanted to be his cheerleader, but never really was. Outside of that lone bit of criticism, I really liked The Dirty Streets of Heaven. Williams creates a world that I want to hear stories about and I am excited to see what else he has in store for Bobby Dollar.

The Dirty Streets of Heaven has a real conversational style to it that comes across well in audio. Narrator George Newbern does a wonderful job capturing the tone of the text and bringing the character of Bobby Dollar alive. There are moments throughout this audiobook where it just felt like Bobby Dollar was telling you the story, and this is exactly what you want in a first person point of view. Williams uses a lot of descriptive detail in his characterizations, and this often includes the voice. Newbern definitely has some challenges to match the details that Williams puts into it, and for the most part nails it. Newbern’s characterizations of the characters who are not given vocal descriptions are solid, yet subtle. There were a few moments where I had trouble during dialogue determining which character was speaking, yet outside of these few moments I thought the production was excellent. This is my first experience with Newbern as an audiobook narrator, and I definitely will be keeping my eyes out for more of his work in the future.