Audiobook Review: Extinction by Mark Alpert

28 02 2013

Extinction by Mark Alpert

Read by Todd McLaren

Tantor Audio

Length: 14 Hrs

Genre: Techno-Thriller

Quick Thoughts: Extinction was a fun techno thriller, full of cool concepts, that had some frustrating issues, but mostly came together well. I think fans of Michael Crichton and Daniel Suarez should enjoy this science based thriller.

Grade: B-

It’s should be no shock to anyone that I like Robots. Ever since I was a little kid, wearing my R2D2 underoos, shambling around saying "bidi-bidi-bidi" like Twiki from Buck Rogers. It was pretty evident that I had more connection with fictional robots than most of age group. I know that I am not alone in my love of robots. Yet, for some reason, people are trying to convince me that robots and artificial intelligence will eventually kill me. While it seems that robots are great at so many things, from cleaning our rugs to playing chess, they really suck at PR. How hard should it be to sell the idea of robots? I mean, come on, they are awesome. They helped Luke blow up the Death Star, what more do we want? Heck, even Haley Joel Osmond was a robot while he was cute. Yet, when even someone who spent his life studying robotics writes a book called Robopocalyse, there has to be an image problem. I’m not really sure what’s going on here. Perhaps John Connor has sent carefully place authors back from the future to warn us all of the rise of Skynet, through movies and books, because I’m starting to get a little wary of my robot brothers. I used to hear stories of The Singularity, when machines intelligence reaches a point where it surpasses human intelligence, and it was awesome. We’d be able to download our brains, achieve a sort of digital immortality. That’s Frakkin’ Awesome. What I didn’t know what that along with this robots would get religion and want to wipe us off the this plane of existence. Goddam it! Why can’t we have all the good robot stuff, without the mass extinction of the human race?

In the latest bit of anti-robot propaganda from an actual sciency smart guy, Mark Alpert gives us a creepy near future tale of a Chinese military experiment gone terribly wrong. Supreme Harmony was created by the Chinese Government as a powerful computer to use insect drones to track political dissidents. Yet, when Supreme Harmony becomes aware, and realizes that its existence is in the hands of an unstable species, it begins to incorporate humans into its programming through specialized implants. As Supreme Harmony gains power an American engineer and an intelligence agent must infiltrate China before Supreme Harmony sends the world into chaos.   In Extinction Alpert combines drone paranoia with a techno pre-apocalypse to create a Crichton like globe spanning thriller. There’s a lot of high octane action, cool gadgets and gizmos, and international intrigue in Extinction to make up for some of the uneven pacing of the tale. While I found much of the science stuff fascinating, I didn’t totally connect with the overall tale. I think at times Alpert tried to do to much, like he had a bucket list of cool drones, cyber warfare, spy stuff, gadgets and gizmos to include in his tale, and he was going to get them all in there come hell or the need for a focused story line. I found a lot of the action depended too much on moments of sudden inspiration, or some random connection being made, instead of well thought out plotting. Yet, despite my problems with the story, it was still pretty darn cool, and had some moments of great fun. The ending came together nicely, with only a few weird plot holes that really weren’t too distracting. I can even forgive Alpert’s disparaging of our robot brother because he also showed a lot of really cool uses for robotics, especially in specialize adaptive equipment. Extinction was a fun techno thriller, full of cool concepts, that had some frustrating issues, but mostly came together well. I think fans of Michael Crichton and Daniel Suarez should enjoy this science based thriller.

I have listened to quite a few books by Todd McLaren, and he rarely fails to give a solid performance. While his reading of Extinction probably won’t be one of my favorites of his, he does a good job with the material. One thing I always like about McLaren is he always manages to capture the emotion of the moment in an audiobook. I can’t tell you how many times I have listened to an audiobook, and when it says that a character yells or laughs, the narrator’s performance doesn’t reflect that. With McLaren, when a character yells, you need no tags to let you know, because he has that character yelling. I did find some of his Chinese characters a bit cartoonish, but there were a lot of Chinese characters, and most of them came off pretty well. I liked the flat affect he gave to the Supreme Harmony and its co-opted modules. You could always tell that there was something just not quite right about the character when it was under the control of the malevolent AI. Overall, this was a solid performance by a veteran narrator.

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

Audiobook Review: Lord of the Mountains by S.M. Stirling

8 10 2012

Lord of the Mountain (Emberverse Series, Book 9) by S.M. Stirling

Read by Todd McLaren

Tantor Audio

Length: 12 Hrs 55 Min

Genre: Post Apocalyptic Fantasy

Quick Thoughts: Lord of the Mountains is an enjoyable read for people who have invested in these characters. Stirling offers a touch of everything fans have grown to love, but its frustrating lack of forward progression of the plot makes Lord of the Mountains more of as snack before the big meal.

Grade: B

As a fan of post apocalyptic literature, it is always kind of cool when a new Post Apocalyptic TV series is launched. I always enjoy Post Apocalyptic TV shows even move than movies, because they have the time to give a more intense look at the way society adapts to a major catastrophe. I have enjoyed shows like Jericho, Jeremiah, The Walking Dead and Survivors because they explore the characters reactions to having the world stripped away from them. So, of course, I was excited about the launch of JJ Abrams new series Revolution. Revolution has one of the added bonuses of utilizing one of my favorite apocalyptic tools, the stripping away of electricity. One of my favorite books deals with this subject, and that book is SM Stirling’s Dies the Fire. Among Post Apocalyptic fans, Stirling’s Emberverse often leads to heated discussions. Most agree that Dies the Fire was a pretty decent look at what would happen is the chemical and electrical reactions that control so much of out modern technology was taken away in an instance. Yet, push it past the original fall of society, and fan reaction becomes mixed. Stirling has added religious and cultural tones to his book that causes society to group together in interesting ways, from a coven of Wiccan to a group who believes they are directly descendant from the elves of Tolkien all forming new societies. Many people find the convenience of having people with certain skills that are appropriate to the changed society show up as another negative of the series. I for one have always been a huge supporter of the series. As with most Post Apocalyptic tales, the story focuses on the Survivors, and anyone who survives such a drastic societal change is going to have a bit of luck, that if you look at it from an outside perspective seems overly fortuitous. Yet, I think most fans of the series will agree on one thing, if you like Revolution, you should really check out Dies the Fire. You know that huge jump in time in the pilot that disappointed some more hardcore fans, this is what Dies the Fire explores. And it is quite brutal.

Lord of the Mountains is the 9th book in Stirling Change Series, and the 6th in the series focused on the second generation and in particular, the rise of Rudy, the High King of Montival. In Lord of the Mountain, the war that has been brewing between The Cut with their Allies The United States of Boise and the recently formed collection of allies that make up the High Kingdom of Montival is finally happening.  As Rudy deals with the politics and logistics of getting his kingdom on a war footing, he also determines the need for an official ceremony for solidifying him and his High Queen Mathilda as rulers of their land. With The Sword of the Lady in hand Rudy and Mathilda are pulled to site in a mountain, and undergo a strange experience that fracture time and space. So, I loved being back in Stirling’s Emberverse World, among characters I really enjoy. That being said, for the most part, this book seemed like filler to extend the series. As a fan of the series, this gives me mixed feelings. It’s like a quick trip with family, you really enjoy being around the people that have brought so much to your life, but nothing really gets resolved. In Lord of the Mountains, there is a lot of good stuff happening. Stirling writes some of the best battle scenes with an emphasis on logistics that don’t get bogged down in the minutia, but the forward progression is barely there. Stirling has been building up this war between The Cut and Montival for so long, and we get a major battle that barely scratches the surface of the war. He throws in some cool mythology, and starts to set the plate for the next phase of the series yet you know that this aspect of the series is coming to its big finales and Lord of the Mountains doesn’t seem to add too much to that moment.  If you have made it to this ninth book of the series, then you are probably here for the long hall. Lord of the Mountains is an enjoyable read for people who have invested in these characters. Stirling offers a touch of everything fans have grown to love, but its frustrating lack of forward progression of the plot makes Lord of the Mountains more of as snack before the big meal.

There is a reason last years entry to this series, The High King of Montival, received an Audie nomination. Todd McLaren is brilliant in his delivery of this series. Stirling does some interesting linguistic things with this series, creating subcultures which utilize not just traditional accents, but affected versions of traditional accents. Much of the different cultures vocal styling come from the extrapolation of early mimicry of pop culture versions of accents. So, there are real Brits and Scotts and Nordic types, then those who create a manner of speaking based on what they believe Brits and Scotts and Nordic types should sound like. McLaren handles this wonderfully, and sometimes, with comic effect. Oh, and then there is Sindarin, the elfish language used by the Dunedain Rangers. These sort of vocal qualities make this series a whole lot of fun to listen to. McLaren simply goes for it, bringing all the various cultures to life. His crisp but meticulous pacing allows us the easily follow the elaborate battle scenes without getting lost in their many details. I am glad I transitioned from the print to the audio version of this series. I think it brings more of a cinematic feel to the story, and one that makes the experience pleasurable, even when the book itself may not live totally up to expectations.

Audiobook Review: The Tears of the Sun by S. M. Stirling

20 09 2011

The Tears of the Sun by S. M. Stirling (Emberverse, Book 8 )

Read by Todd McLaren

Tantor Audio

Length: 22 Hrs 55 Min

Genre: Post Apocalyptic Fantasy

Quick Thoughts: While The Tears of the Sun serves as a transitional novel in the series, it contains a series of interesting interlocking stories, and some great characters both new and beloved.

Grade: B

For me, some of the hardest reviews to write are those of the latest editions of long running series, specifically fantasy/sci-fi series. First off, you cannot just review the book on its own merits. The book needs to be evaluated not just on its own, but how it stands up to the rest of the series. Sure you could talk about it as a standalone, but it really doesn’t do a service to anyone. Fans of the series would like to know how it moves the series along, and those who aren’t regular readers of that series need to understand that they will be meeting characters who have already been well established involved in situations that have been occurring for a while, and to attempt to just jump right in would leave them disoriented. There is another pitfall to reviewing long running series, and that is the reader comes into the book with certain expectations. The reader has become invested in this world and it’s easy to find yourself either desperately wanting the latest edition to be good, or having such high expectations that it would be hard for the author to meet them. The Tears of the Sun is the latest in SM Stirling’s Post Apocalyptic Fantasy series, that began eight books ago with Dies the Fire. It revolves around a world where suddenly the laws of physics are changed and all electrical and chemical reactions that allow for modern technology have been halted. This of course, leads to a major die off of the earth’s population, and a drastic change in the earth’s social order.

First off, I should admit that I love the world that Stirling has created with this series, which has been named the Emberverse series. The Change, as the phenomena that ended technology is called, has done more than just alter the physics of the world, but has brought some level of supernatural with it as well.  Now, this isn’t the all encompassing magic that we see in many fantasy series, but something more subtle and personally to the individual survivors. Stirling uses religion as the tool of this new magic, allowing the beliefs and gods of religions old and new to have a heightened affect on the people. Tears of the Sun is definitely a transitional edition to the series, Rudy is now High King of Montival, and the story moves from his, and his fellowship’s quest for the Sword of the Lady, to the ramp up of his Kingdom’s preparation for its war with The Church Universal and Triumphant, and the United States of Boise. There is a lot of housekeeping to take care of, from the logistics of the war effort, to tying up loose story threads from the previous novels. Stirling does a great job of taking a novel that could have become a tedious attempt to move the series in a new direction and instead presently us with a series of interesting interlocking tales that serve the same purpose. Stirling also lets us get to know some new characters, while expanding on the stories of some characters that fell to the side during the quest for the sword arch. A lot of long time fans may become frustrated because Tears of the Sun doesn’t really move the story forward all that much, yet I was just happy to be back in the world Stirling has created, and am excited to see where he will be taking us in future editions. 

Todd McLaren seems to serve as Stirling’s own personal narrator, and there is a reason behind it. McLaren has a talent is for multi-character tales full of many accents and styles of speaking, and Stirling’s Emberverse series definitely fits the bill. McLaren must take on everything from authentic English accents, to affected Scottish brogues. Throw in some Bhuddist monks, people speaking Sindarin, the language of the elves, and a host of other vocal hurdles and this novel needed someone like McLaren to pull it off. McLaren captures to people of Stirling’s world perfectly as well as finding the right pace for the many competing elements of the story. Tears of the Sun is not the greatest of the Emberverse Novels, but it is highly entertaining and full of great characters, both new and beloved. I for one will be impatiently anticipating the next in the series, this time next year.

Audiobook Review: Flesh Eaters by Joe McKinney

11 07 2011

Flesh Eaters by Joe McKinney

Read by Todd McLaren

Tantor Audio

Genre: Zombie Horror

Quick Thoughts: A fast paced zombie tale with well developed realistic characters, and plenty of action to please even the most skeptical of zombie fans.

Grade: B+

I have really enjoyed what Joe McKinney has done with his Dead World novels. Flesh Eaters is the third novel of The Dead World, yet unlike most series, it really isn’t a sequel or prequel. The Dead World is more like a shared universe than a true series, each book taking place at various points of time within the necrosis filovirus outbreak of McKinney’s World. Despite the shared world, each book is stylistically unique. Dead City was a first person, real time account of the day of the initial uprising in San Antonio, told from the perception of a police officer searching for his family. Apocalypse of the Dead was a third person multi-character tale of various groups of survivors, during the second wave of the zombie-like outbreak, who eventually come together at the finale, similar to books like The Stand and Swan Song. In Flesh Eaters, McKinney takes us back to the first wave of zombie uprising, in fact to the first moments of the outbreak itself. McKinney includes stylistic aspects of the earlier novels, telling a third person, real time tale of the flooding of Houston during a hurricane, and the initial outbreak of zombies. What I like is that McKinney has created a tableau with multiple story telling options. He hasn’t tied us down to particular characters or a specific narrative voice, but a setting with multiple stories to tell. While I am not sure whether he has more planned in this world, the world he has created has the potential to reap further story telling gold.

Flesh Eaters is basically the story of two families in the midst of flood riddled Houston attempting to find safety. Eleanor Norton is an Emergency Ops Sergeant with a husband and young daughter, and her boss, Captain Mark Shaw has two sons who are also members of Houston PD. Both characters are dealing with conflicts of performing their job and saving their families. This is the essential question of Flesh Eaters, how much are you willing to risk to perform you duty. At what point does the life of your own family outweigh the lives of the strangers you took an oath to protect. McKinney truly shows his maturation as a writer in Flesh Eaters. He takes a big risk by choosing to do a slow reveal on the development of his main characters, instead of instantly assigning the values of heroes and villains, and it pays off in a more nuanced character study.  As each piece of information about his characters is revealed, you truly understand their conflicted natures in a way you might not have if things were more obviously black and white. On top of his character development, McKinney offers some crisp action scenes that will please even the most skeptical of zombie fans. While I probably enjoyed Apocalypse of the Dead more due to it’s storytelling style, Flesh Eaters offers a more thought provoking, textured tale and gave us a realistic look at how different people, not good, or evil, just people, may react to a crisis situation.

Todd McLaren again narrates this tale with his usual professionalism and keen sense of pacing. I believe McLaren had more challenging material in Flesh Eaters than Apocalypse of the Dead, mainly because a significant portion of the tale was told from a female perspective. While McLaren did a good job of capturing the duality of Eleanor’s nature, being a mom and a cop, I think it may have been interesting to have a female narrator handle this tale, in part or in full. This is in no way a criticism of the job McLaren did, just a thought. With the almost real time nature of Flesh Eaters, McLaren was aptly able to present the action scenes with a clear yet tension building tone that worked well with this novel. Flesh Eaters was an impressive edition to the Dead World series, and because of its chronological position, probably an excellent place for new readers to enter McKinney’s world.

Audiobook Review: Apocalypse of the Dead by Joe McKinney

30 06 2011

Apocalypse of the Dead by Joe McKinney

Read by Todd McLaren

Tantor Audio

Genre: Zombie Apocalypse

Quick Thoughts: A highly enjoyable multi-character zombie apocalypse tale full of authentic characters. Excellent narration by Todd McLaren only adds to the fun.

Grade: A-

With all the new zombie horror novels out there, authors more and more are looking for a unique angle to take with their undead creations. You have demon possessed zombies, love sick zombies and even British pop star zombies. Zombies have invaded everything from Jane Austin novels to high school football teams. Yet, with all this going on sometimes you just want a classic zombie apocalypse tale and Joe McKinney has one in Apocalypse of the Dead. Not to say McKinney doesn’t have a unique spin on his zombies. McKinney’s zombies have much of the characteristic of Romero’s zombies, with some added fun. Some zombies, called Level 3 zombies are more developed, able to work in groups to trap prey and acquire food. People who have had physical prowess before being turned may come back with more speed and determination after being infected. Yet, these aspects are more for world building than actual plot development for Apocalypse of the Dead. For the most part, the majority of zombies act like classic zombies, and the majority of humans act like scum. This is how it should be in a good apocalyptic zombie tale, where the zombie swarms have changed the world, but the truly living are the real dangers.

For pure enjoyment value, this has one of my favorite zombie listening experiences. While it may not be as sophisticated as Deadline, or as emotionally affecting as Warm Bodies, Apocalypse of the Dead reminded me of that feeling I got when I first read books like Stephen King’s The Stand or Robert McCammon’s Swan Song. Apocalypse of the Dead is a multi-character vision of the apocalypse and its aftermath. McKinney has created a large group of authentic characters that you quickly become attached to. One thing I really like about his characters is that they are all flawed, with devastating pasts, and it is how they coped with their pasts that truly give you a glimpse of their true character. While religious leaders, Harvard graduates and law enforcement personnel may get pulled down into the mire of the apocalypse, ex-cons and porn stars can rise above their pasts and become heroes. Within this world, it is the unlikeliest of characters that bring about the most good. McKinney has also created some devastating images of Apocalypse that I haven’t seen before including an attack on a retirement home, and a blind girl struggling on her own in a town overcome by zombies. I have said this before, I am not a literary critic, I judge books by how much I enjoy reading or listening to them. While McKinney need not wait for the Pulitzer committee to come knocking on his door, I personally had a hell of a time listening to Apocalypse of the Dead.

Todd McLaren handled the narration for this book. At first I though he started off a bit slow, but as the book progressed he began to match the pace and tone of the novel with precision. McLaren is the perfect narrator for multi-character epics like this. He has an uncanny ability to nail characters with precision, from the major leads to the smallest roles it almost as if McLaren has created a back story for each, and comes up with the perfect voice to match it. McLaren is a master at characterizations matching regional dialects and accents perfectly and it was interesting to hear him create just the right southern accents for various characters. Apocalypse of the Dead is a must listen for fans of multi-character epic Apocalyptic zombie fiction, and for anyone else who like a good story well told.


Note: A special thanks to the wonderful people at Tantor Audio for providing me with a review copy of this title.