Title: In Real Life
Author: Lawrence Tabak
Release Date: November 11
Source: Tuttle Publishing on NetGalley (A copy of this book was provided to me in exchange for an honest review.)
Check out this book on Goodreads.
Fifteen-year-old math prodigy Seth Gordon knows exactly what he wants to do with his life—play video games. Every spare minute is devoted to honing his skills at Starfare, the world’s most popular computer game. His goal: South Korea, where the top pros are rich and famous. But the best players train all day, while Seth has school and a job and divorced parents who agree on only one thing: “Get off that damn computer.” Plus there’s a new distraction named Hannah, an aspiring photographer who actually seems to understand his obsession.
While Seth mopes about his tournament results and mixed signals from Hannah, Team Anaconda, one of the leading Korean pro squads, sees something special. Before he knows it, it’s goodbye Kansas, goodbye Hannah, and hello to the strange new world of Korea. But the reality is more complicated than the fantasy, as he faces cultural shock, disgruntled teammates, and giant pots of sour-smelling kimchi.
What happens next surprises Seth. Slowly, he comes to make new friends, and discovers what might be a breakthrough, mathematical solution to the challenges of Starcraft. Delving deeper into the formulas takes him in an unexpected direction, one that might just give him a new focus—and reunite him with Hannah. (Source: Goodreads)
I’m writing this review in August, which is the past for you. These are my feeling immediately after reading the book. Reading this book for an experience unlike any other for me. It took me about a week to read the book and for most of that week I was just angry with the book.
Seth is a high school student turned pro-gamer who moves to South Korea to pursue his dreams of gaming stardom. He leave behind his family and a brand new girlfriend in hopes of becoming a pro-gamer. The book deals with Seth’s pre-move challenges of breaking into the industry and what faces him when he arrives in Korea. The book is divided into two parts: Kansas and Korea.
This book had a lot of potential, I just don’t think that it lived up to the potential. I found it often times confusing, dull, and poorly written. The concept of this book is really intriguing because professional gaming isn’t something you see a lot of books about, and you don’t see a lot of gamer characters portrayed as cool or on the level of professionals. I thought this book would correct this trend, it really didn’t.
Seth wasn’t a particularly likeable character to me. He is something of a Mary Sue type character, whiny about not getting girls, gets a girl, only thinks about sex, and then whines about not being good at anything. But is pro-level at gaming and is in university math classes in high school. None of which really made sense. He just seemed very blah and very…good at everything with no real faults of any kind. There wasn’t any depth to his character at all and he was very one dimensional. He’s essentially a stereotype of teenaged boys. The fact is I found most of the characters very one dimensional in this book which was a huge disappointment.
One of the big things that really bothered me about Seth was that he’s always looking down on professional gamers, even though he is one. He refers to other gamers pretty frequently in terms similar to “losers” which really seemed inconsistent with his own desire to be recognized by his parents as pursuing a realistic and worthwhile career in the gaming industry. I think this was one of the many situations in which Tabak relied pretty heavily on stereotype rather than reality. Personally, I know people who have pursued careers in professional gaming, hoping to breakthrough into the Korean gaming scene and they did not EVER refer to their peers as losers. They were more likely to praise them for their skills or express a desire to achieve the same level of fame as the other player. This made Seth even more unlikeable to me, and left a bad taste in my mouth.
Seth’s treatment of girls was also really bothersome. I mentioned already that he thinks about sex a lot. He gets into a relationship, goes on about committing to her and the moves to Korea and the first girl he meets he considers taking home with him. He just seems like a jerk. At some point he thinks about girls and how they’re “objects of affection” and really…for Seth they really are just objects. His girlfriend was more or less a badge that he’s not a loser, because he can get a girlfriend even though he’s a gamer, but he really doesn’t treat her well. This was just troubling for me. It also just increased my dislike for Seth immensely, especially the longer it went on.
Towards the end of the book a new subplot is added in, Seth is writing math equations about game theory. Game theory is not really explained in the book, and the explanation given is worded so awkwardly it didn’t really make sense. A lot of this math discussion was just confusing and pointless to me. It only served to reinforce the fact that Seth is “so smart” and “so special” because he’s not only a Starfare pro, but also a math prodigy.
There’s a lot of contemplation (whining is a little more accurate) on Seth’s part about the fact that Korean’s don’t understand American culture. He doesn’t seem to care that he doesn’t try to understand Korean culture at all. Sure his reception isn’t great when he arrives in Korea but the way he looks at everyone in Korea is like they’re below him and like they think they’re so superior but he’s still better than them. His whole attitude was just annoying to me because it just feeds into his whiny Mary Sue personality.
I found the representation of Korea and Koreans rather questionable and inconsistent with my own experiences. Perhaps it’s because I was fresh off my own trip to Korea that this was something I paid so much attention to, but it really bothered me. The Korean characters are all more or less caricatures of the stereotypical “Asian”. They didn’t speak English, didn’t like foreigners, wanted to know all about “American girls”, or seemed like weasley business men. There’s some pretty offensive terminology used in the book as well, including reinforcing a “East vs. West” dichotomy and one character calls the Koreans “ass-backwards tards”, which Seth (and the author) do nothing to work against, clear up, or fight. He goes on, at several points, to reinforce stereotypes about Koreans, call them “weird” and “wrong”, and just general say all sorts of rude and/or offensive stuff about the people, the culture, and the country. Not good.
I also felt like a lot of the information about Korea was more “pop knowledge” and less real research with huge inconsistencies to what I have actually seen and experienced when living in Korea. Take for example the startling lack of “Westerners” in Seoul, despite the fact that I never went a day in Seoul without meeting a “Westerner”, but nope Seth is the only one for a very long time. The one’s he finally meets are all bitter and angry just like him, which is convenient. This just seemed so inaccurate. Maybe that’s just me. There’s also a lot of explanations that rely on the fact that it’s “the Korean way” or “Korean custom” without any further work or research to explain it. This really bothered me. Anyway, all of this just left me with a bad impression of the book.
There was one thing that really bothered me throughout the “Korea” section of the book, but never really got explained. I had to hunt around on the internet for this. “Tost-u”, this thing Seth eats repeatedly. I’m still not entirely sure what he was referring to, though I think it might be this. It kind of bothered me because it’s the one thing he likes about Korea but…he doesn’t know what it is? It’s not italicized in the book like foreign words tend to be, so I was super confused. And then the anglicized spelling is wrong…so I just spent the whole second half of the book feeling confused and annoyed. This bad transliteration also leads to weird “Asian” accents that don’t match pronunciation between Korean and English translation. (It’s such a small thing but the small things make the book!!)
The writing in this book was subpar in my opinion. I found the voice really lacking. It sounded like it was written by a middle aged man trying too hard to sound young and hip. The slang used is dated and awkward. This led to a lot of awkward dialogue choices and confusing phrasing throughout the book. Furthermore, the “chat speak” used in the book by Seth and his friend didn’t make any sense because it’s really not how people use chat speak on the internet at all. I don’t know if some of this was pre-editing mistakes in my ARC or actually intended to be like this, but overall it just lowered the quality of the writing and the impression of the book.
Further to this, the pacing of the book and the cause-and-effect timeline in the book didn’t really make sense to me. Seth’s parents, who are very hesitant to let him go and meet the team initially, simply let him fly off to Korea without much discussion. This just seemed too convenient and suggests some laziness on the part of the writer to me. This really stood out to me as a huge inconsistency in the characters as had been established previously in the book and bothered me for quite a while. I also found the book made these grand leaps in action, take for example his climb to fame, he is famous very suddenly, very quickly, and it just seems rather nonsensical to me personally. There’s no growth or development everything is just leaps from place to place at a really rapid pace.
There are these sort of…imagined sequences? Basically Seth imagines how he wants things to go for him, this is mainly in the first portion of the book and slowly phased out which I think was a good decision. Basically these imagined/dream sequences come with no queue or warning. They are only marked by a change to italics without any mention that he’s imagining these things and it really doesn’t work with the book and creates a really uneven flow to the writing. I’m glad that by the second portion of the book they are not really present.
To sort of round this all up I want to discuss the ending of this book. I don’t want to include any spoilers, but it wasn’t good. I found it kind of summed up the whole book badly. It reinforced the overall xenophobic attitude of the book and the representation of Koreans as xenophobic too. It was just…bad.
I think I could go on for ages about the things I didn’t like about this book. I’ve already done more than enough of that though. There are limited pros in this book for me. The concept is good, though as I’ve mentioned poorly delivered. The book is an easy read, very lighthearted. It was, for me, not a quick read because there was so much about it that annoyed me, but it was easy to read when I wasn’t annoyed. I think a lot of the things that annoyed me about the book would be easily overlooked by most readers, so it might be a faster read for those people. I’ve seen a few positive reviews of this book so I think many of these complaints just come down to who I am and what my background in study and life is. I cannot recommend this book.
(I feel I should apologize for this review a little bit. The subject on which this book was written, specifically Korea and writing about Asia in general, Korea in specific, is something I have spent years working in and researching so I have a lot of background in critique work that deals with Asia so I often find myself having a lot to say about this kind of work and not a lot of that seems to have positive.)