Friday, July 20, 2012

The Placebo Effect by David Rotenberg

You may remember I reviewed a book by this author's brother, Robert Rotenberg. I must say, if there's only going to be one writer in the family, I vote for Robert.

That's not to say that D. Rotenberg isn't any good; this is a great read for those who enjoy thrillers in the sub-genre of "books that should have been movies". You know what I mean? The book in itself isn't bad, it's just that while I read it I couldn't help thinking how much more suitable the story would be for film. It's hard to write a good thriller; pacing is so difficult, and the special attention a novelist wants to pay to characterization has to sometimes be sacrificed to keep things moving.

The Placebo Effect follows Decker Roberts, an acting teacher/coach and screenwriter who makes a little money on the side by exploiting a peculiar talent he has for being able to spot when someone is telling the truth. He is hired by shadowy figures working for large corporations and law firms, vetted through his friend Eddie, a technology whiz and fellow synaesthete (folks with...let's just say special talents). The NSA wants to use Decker for national security purposes, and the CEO of a pharmaceutical company wants to exploit the talents of another synaesthete, Mike, who can tell the perfect ratio of anything. Decker gets mixed up in a lot of stuff all at once, and spends most of the novel on the run while trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

It's complicated to describe, but it's not too hard to follow once you're reading it. Decker lives in the Junction, so that's the Toronto connection, but most of his time in the story is spent hopping around between Toronto, Cincinnati, and various other cities. There are some quality Toronto shout-outs though, notably to Squirly's and Swan Diner (both on Queen West), and a lot of in-depth exposition re: the history of the Junction. Apparently this is book one of the author's "Junction chronicles", although whether the following books will follow characters from this novel or simply start new stories in the Junction remains to be seen.

There were a few moments I hated about this book. Rotenberg seems hung up on references - literary and pop culture - and needlessly drops them willy-nilly throughout the story; not as subtle homages or even wink-y tributes, but just by straight up mentioning things. His female NSA agent character, Yslan Hicks, makes multiple references to her resemblance to Clarice Starling (from the Hannibal Lector novels). I mean, why call attention to it? And early on there is a mean-spirited swipe at Alec Baldwin that is so strangely spiteful it took me right out of the story. And the most annoying part (for me, because I am irrational at times) was that Decker at one point asks for a specific brand of bottled water - for no reason. Is this book sponsored by Evian? It was weird. Maybe it was supposed to say something about his character, but if so, it went right over my head.

This is another one of those books that it may be impossible for me to review fairly, as I simply do not care much for the genre in general. Honestly it's a book that I put in a category I like to think of as "Dad books"; anything that has federal agents chasing some dude around doesn't appeal to me, but I think it would be a good gift for somebody's dad. Perhaps it is fitting that it was recommended (and loaned) to me by my own future father-in-law. It is a book I would not hesitate to recommend to him if he hadn't already read it.

Yes I realize this review has been profoundly unhelpful.

If I were rating this book for that purpose (ie. as a recommendation to someone who enjoys the genre), I would probably give it four towers. For myself, I didn't enjoy it that much, and would probably give it two. So, three towers it is:


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