Yzabel

Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

The Escape Room

The Escape Room - Megan Goldin

[I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A quick read, in that it’s not complicated and you don’t need a lot of focus. I didn’t find the story compelling, and the writing style was quite dry, with much more telling than showing.

The initial idea, that of four people trapped in a lift masquerading as an escape room, and forced to be together when in fact they’d probably much prefer to kill each other, was a good one. However, it was also difficult to execute—there isn’t much room in a lift, which limits action possibilities—and after the first couple of “lift chapters”, the thrill here dwindled down to our four bankers not doing much with the few clues they were given. I think there was an element of “things didn’t turn out exactly as the mastermind behind it had envisioned they would”, but it fell flat for me. It was also pretty obvious from the beginning who said mastermind was, and with this removed, the remaining “how” and “why” weren’t able to fully carry the story afterwards.

This said, I could’ve worked with the above under certain conditions: the twin narrative of Sara Hall and what happened within Stanhope a few years prior to the escape room scenes had interesting ideas, exploring the ruthless world of investment banking, colleagues smiling to each other but trying to undermine each other from behind, backstabbing, the women vs. the “old boys’ network”, and so on. I could’ve worked with this… if the characters had been compelling, only they weren’t. Almost all of them (except the one that dies mid-story) weren’t likeable people—and when I say likeable, I don’t mean that they necessarily have to be kind, positive, etc., but that they have to make me feel for them, and keep interested, in spite of their flaws. Here, though, they were just unlikeable, without many redeeming qualities; their more human aspects (struggling with their relationships, divorce, and so on) mostly make them look like what mattered to them wasn’t so much the relationship, but the standing that came with it; not so much saving one’s marriage, but avoiding losing alimony money; and so on. In other words, whether they got out of the lift or not, I didn’t care.

As for the plot behind the whole escape room, it felt more contrived, and a little ridiculous, than thrilling, and the few twists and turns didn’t awe me either.

(On the plus side, I did like the characters who died. Unfortunately. I mean, for them, because, well, they’re dead.)

Nonbinary — Memoirs of Gender and Identity

Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity  - Micah Rajunov, A. Scott Duane

[I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A collection of essays by and about nonbinary authors. (Incidentally, July 14 is International Nonbinary People's day, so I guess this review comes at just about the right time.) There’s more than just “either man or woman”, and I wish this was more understood, all the more because I have a hard time with the current of hostility exhibited by some people whenever they can’t put others in neat little boxes (doesn’t only apply to gender, but the latter is a definitely a sore spot).

The essays range across a variety of people and assigned genders, and show well that “nonbinary” is not something that only “happens” in specific places, or to specific people. There’s too often a tendency to see all things enby or trans as a “phase”, as something that people should “grow out of”. Here, not all authors are younger people who may be called “too young to know” and who will “stop being confused and change their minds”, the way the usual narrative goes whenever the two little boxes I mentioned above cannot be ticked. Half the authors are at least in their 30s, or even born in the 1950s-60, which goes to show that it’s not a generation thing. The same way, “non-binary” is too often seen as “assigned female as birth who now presents as androgyne”, when the truth is that this concerns many other kinds of people, across all ages, origins, colour and sexuality.

It was really interesting for me to see how all these authors came to understand they were nonbinary. For some, it was obvious very early, others had more trouble putting a name on it, or thought they were looking for transition, and so on. We are formatted from a very young age to see ourselves as either boy or girl, and this formatting can have a strong impact, in that it’s not so easy to sort out what we feel, and the spectre of “having to be normal” weighs heavily. Because you don’t feel like a boy doesn’t mean you’re a cis girl, and conversely. And more visibility (and less dismissal) in general for nonbinary people would be a welcome thing.

In terms of diversity, the one thing I regret here is that it felt like a very US-centric collection, so it doesn’t shed light about what being non-binary may entail in other parts of the world. Maybe it wasn’t possible to get authors from other countries, or maybe it was overlooked? I was also not too thrilled with the chapter told by the parent of a nonbinary teen; I would’ve been more interested in having the direct point of view of Bailey themselves as well, also as someone with the perspective of a teenager.

The Science of Storytelling

The Science of Storytelling - Will Storr

[I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Pretty interesting both regarding the science part (how our brains work) and the writing part (how this translated into fiction, and more specifically creating compelling characters with a ‘fatal flaw’). The author illustrates those points with examples from a few well-known books, like ‘Lolita’ and ‘The Remains of the Day’, an approach that could easily be problematic. On the one hand, illustrating the theory with examples is always better. On the other hand, if one hasn’t read those books…spoilers! (I had read those in the past, so I was good here.) At any rates, these examples were good ones in my opinion, especially where ‘Lolita’ is concerned: Humbert Humbert is clearly not the kind of character one is supposed to root for, so for Nabokov to make him and the story compelling, specific techniques had to be used. And once analysed the way they are in “The Science of Storytelling”, they do make a lot of sense. (Please note that this has likely been explored in studies about ‘Lolita’ as well, but I haven’t read them, so I can’t tell whether there’s anything original in here, or not at all.)

Having plenty of examples, though, was perhaps a little overkill in places, in that it left less room to explore more in terms of neuroscience / how the human brain works. I chose to take this book as one I can go back to for ‘writing advice’, but I admit that I felt a little down regarding the science part (I expected more, in a more scientific way). So best is to approach this book as one about writing rather than as a bona fide ‘science’ book’.

(I also didn’t care much for the few moments when the author went more into political opinions. This I found jarring, and it pulled me out of my funk.)

Probably my favourite section was actually the last one (as in, the appendix), which gives good pointers into creating and fleshing out characters based on what the author developed throughout the book. In hindsight, it’s probably ‘logical’ advice, and I suppose that there are quite a few authors out there who’re doing that (consciously or not) as something that is completely obvious and/or logical to them; for me, it was definitely interesting, and I need to keep it in mind when developing my own characters. Which isn’t necessarily easy when you have more than one main character to focus on, but that’s a whole other conundrum.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars

Whisper Network

Whisper Network - Chandler Baker

[I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

I enjoyed this novel for its theme and its message, along with the format: interspersed with interviews gradually unveiling more of the “present time” plot, while the chapters themselves started some 2 months before and showed what led to this point. I guessed some things, I didn’t guess some others, and all in all, piecing things together was fun.

The topic at hand, of course, wasn’t fun. It balanced between office politics and double-standards—how female employees are (often) viewed vs. the “old boys club” feeling—, between deciding whether to complain about potential harassment or shut up for fear of retaliation, between wondering what does constitute harassment and whether or not one is “overreacting”, and let’s not forget also the usual “these women are lying and destroying lives” (funny enough, the people complaining about this don’t seem to react as often about how rapists are ruining lives as well). All well-made points, including the latter, because it -is- true they come forward right as the guy is poised to become the new CEO, in reaction to feeling suddenly even more threatened, but also one of opportunism… but not everyone would think about it this way, since there’d be lots of money involved as well. All uncomfortable topics, too, yet that need to be pointed at and discussed.

This said, I really had trouble empathising with the characters. I don’t have much in common with them for starters—apart, that is, from encounters with sexist douchebags and other run-ins involving the usual patriarchy-fed bull, although I’m aware I haven’t had it the worst either (fingers crossed). But I’m not a new mother, nor a single one, nor someone who cheated on a partner, etc., so I usually need a bit of extra connection with such characters, a little dose of something else, something more, to relate to their problems, especially their rich people problems, and… that didn’t really happen here. The impression I got out of the main female characters was more that they weren’t very pleasant people, who yet kept trying to justify their behaviours to themselves, a little like “but at least I do this better” and “but -I- am not like that, right?” Kind of weak in my opinion.

The story also dragged in parts, and even though I read it in 3 days, at times I wished it would get to the point faster. And I’m still unsure of who the narrator exactly was. The author? Not one of the characters, or at least, it doesn’t sound like it. (Their voices were quite similar, so I needed to see them named in each chapter anyway in order to quickly get who it was about.)

Conclusion: 3 stars. I did like the story, but never really connected with the characters.

Quantum Convention

Quantum Convention - Eric Schlich

[I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

As with every collection of short stories in general, some in this book were spot on, and some didn’t touch me much.

I enjoyed how relatable the stories were: the characters, their actions, their past, their motivations were altogether very human and understandable. It was easy to empathize with Lyssa’s fear of ending up left all alone, or with Owen’s desperate desire to go out and meet other people. Their themes were food for thought, the kind that will lead to introspection and wondering, and there would be a lot to say about those afterwards as well.

On the other hand, most of the stories left me with a feeling of lack, as if something undefinable was missing from them. I think I was expecting more of a punchline, something to let me know that the narrative was over and that now I could think about it on my own, but instead of that, it seemed that the thread was cut short, almost as if someone had stopped talking in the middle of a sentence. Why I wouldn’t mind filling in the blanks, and while I do enjoy open endings, whatever the length of the story, here, it was more jarring than thought-provoking. Almost every time, I got thrown out of my reading, wondering “and…?” As if the author didn't know how to wrap it up, and so just left it there. Or maybe there was something to get, and I just didn't get it. Hard to tell.

Conclusion: A quick and enjoyable read, but one that felt unachieved to me (eight times).

Recursion

Recursion - Blake Crouch

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley and Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.]

This novel definitely dealt with an interesting idea, one that raised a lot of ethical conundrums—and not only when it comes to mapping and injecting memories. It’s hard to fully develop this without spoiling, and whoever has read the book will know anyway what I’m talking about. Suffice to say that considering the successive outcomes after the turning point “experiment”, it was only logical that things would go to the dogs a little more each time.

The events immediately after the leak were particularly shocking due to how.. logical and expected they were: one group trying to prevent terrorist events, and the terrorist group causing them switching to a new attack every time the previous one is unmade. I can totally see that happening.

(show spoiler)



The concept explored here is one that lends itself todiscussion and to a lot of divergingopinions, and illustrates perfectly how the road to Hell is so often paved with good intentions. And I’d definitely side with Helena here: as much as her technology would be great if used at a very small scale, I wouldn’t trust humanity with it either.

The DARPA episode illustrated this so very well. Here we had this group of government-type people, who were committed to use the chair, but at least had enough wisdom to keep Helena on board as their safeguard, precisely so that they could make sure to use her technology to do good and never go too far. Then a leak occurred, and all their good work was thrown under the bus, and the worst-case scenarii started to happen.

(show spoiler)



In terms of the plot, I was totally on board. The story demands one to stay focused on the details, since several events happening throughout the novel become essential again later on—I read mostly while commuting/walking, so I tend to unconsciously ‘skim’ at times, and here, I had to go back to realise that what felt like a plot hole was just my not having paid enough attention. I didn’t agree with everything in terms of science (doesn’t matter what happens at the quantum level, you can’t exactly use that and apply it to the macro level), but it didn’t have much of an impact on my enjoyment while reading, and I’m OK with that.

Where I didn’t like the book so much was when it came to the characters. Due to the nature of the plot, a lot rested on repetitive scenes, with the same characters. However, while I didn’t dislike them, I didn’t feel particularly connected to them either. Which is really too bad—you’ve got to admire Helena’s courage and resiliency, and the sacrifices she made, to try and repair the damage; that would turn more than one person completely mad after the first couple of attempts. But I wasn’t convinced by the shortcuts taken with the characters’ relationship (how they get to know each other, how said relationship developed). To be honest, for me, this was Helena’s story. Barry mostly seemed like he was needed so that there would be someone (anyone) with Helena to give a hand, with more importance towards the end, which in itself also tasted a little too much like “in spite of all the girl’s efforts, the guy’s the one who saves the day”, so…

Conclusion: 3 stars. It was a plot-driven story, a plot that I liked, but in this specific case, it also needed to be character-driven, and that didn’t happen.

Underdogs

Underdogs - Chris Bonnello

Overall, it was both a fun and an emotional story, with good pacing and an appropriate mix of calm moments and tense ones. Also, since I read it through Pigeonhole, the staves were cut in such a way that they stop just at the right moment: if they hadn't, I sure wouldn't have stopped reading until the next day.

I really liked the cast, and the choice of relying on different people for a change: not your typical teenagers, but clearly the "underdogs", those seen as "problem children", considered from the start as "inferior", "useless", and all other manners of stupid clichés by "normal" people (whatever "normal" means anyway, eh?). Our heroes were clearly much more than their differences: they were human beings, something that should never be forgotten. They were good people, with their positive and negative traits like everyone, with a hefty dose of bravery and a genuine desire to do the right thing. And without being bogged down by "regular" society's demands, they were given the space to grow into themselves as people.

Which is why it pains me not to give more stars to this book, because as much as I liked the characters, I also couldn't overlook the rest. Mainly:
- The plot holes. Because much time is spent with the characters (which is a good thing), too little is spent on the backstory, and the latter in turn looks very simplistic and cliché. Bad guy uses his money to acquire private companies and get the government to trust him, then surprises everybody with an army of clones, seizes power, and stuffs all the population of Great Britain into prison-cities. OK, I get a villain having a desire for power, but it still felt "empty". Also, clones wouldn't prevent another country from simply nuking his factories from above, so... What was the rest of the world doing?
- The bad guys in general were pretty cliché, too, especially Nat and Oliver. They made me laugh and roll my eyes more than thrilled me.
- The last point is one I hate making (although, to be fair, I've noticed this in other stories as well): when the main characters' neuroatypical aspects were mentioned, I most often found it too... didactic, so to speak. I have the same feeling when non-binary characters, for instance, are portrayed the same way: it screams "must show the readers how this character is trans/asexual/non-binary/etc., but surely most readers have no clue and are too lazy to do their own research, so let's spell it for them." Same thing here, only in this case, of course, it was about Asperger's, or Down's syndrome. And I get it, I really do: it's definitely hard to find the right balance, the one where enough is explained for most readers to receive the right information (and not lose them if, indeed, they don't care about doing some research), yet without slamming it in their faces either. Still, the fact remains that it tended to throw me out of my reading here.

Conclusion: 2.5 stars because of the clichés/holes and the explanatory tone. But without that, for the sheer entertaining factor and the very likeable characters, I'd have rated this book higher.

Unearthed

Unearthed - Meagan Spooner, Amie Kaufman

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

I struggled a little to get into this book, and I admit that I skimmed over a few parts, but in the end, while clearly not-mind blowing, it was entertaining enough.

The dynamics between Mia and Jules is, overall, one that worked well throughout the novel. They have their moments of snarky banter, they peel their layers gradually to each other (sometimes because external circumstances don’t really give them a chance, and sometimes voluntarily), and they get to really look at each other, past their completely different backgrounds. While Jules was introduced at first as perhaps completely lacking common sense—seen through Mia’s eyes, of course he would come across as some unprepared, pampered rich kid who had no clue what he set his feet into, he is actually more savvy than that; and, conversely, he soon learns to see past the ‘filthy scavver’, and see the actual human being behind the mask. Both are also less ‘gender-coded’ than one would expect, which I appreciated, and make use of skills such as linguistics and mathematics to get out of various pinches, which is always cool in my eyes.

The plot itself was OKish. I would’ve liked more details about the state Earth was in and the bigger plot—in terms of the science in the science fiction part, it wasn’t developed at all, and the portal bit felt like a hasty shortcut and let’s be done with it. The puzzles and exploring and spelunking in alien temples were interesting, yet I felt a little distanced from it all, as they demanded a fair share of description to become something easy to picture. The beginning and the ending were more exciting in that regard; the middle dragged. Probably would’ve dragged less without the romance. (Yes, there is a romantic relationship, of course. It’s a young adult story, so having a bit of romance is as much a surprise here as finding a Tube station in the heart of London. I don’t have much to say about it. My personal sense of priority is much more geared towards “more escaping the dangerous situations, less snogging and finding the other person hot”, and even as a teenager, romance left me cold. I’m not a good target audience for this.)

The story picked up again in the last third, and the reveal at the end was something I half-expected and somewhat hoped for, so that’s that. I’m not sure if I’ll be interested enough to read book 2, but maybe if it’s available at the library?

Lifeformed: Cleo Makes Contact

Lifeformed: Cleo Makes Contact - Matt Mair Lowery, Cassie Anderson

[I received a copy of this book through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.]

This comic reads quickly: the story flows from page to page, and there's no lagging behind. After the first few pages of Cleo’s life at school and with her father, with a short insight of what’s been happening behind the scenes, Invasion Day is here, and they both have to run for their lives. All the while, they to maintain a semblance of normalcy, such as when they find shelter at abandoned houses, living in the remnants of another family now gone or dead, or meet other survivors and have to make a quick choice between driving them away or being simply human and welcoming them.

The relationship between Cleo and Alex was a touching one. Very early on, it is obvious that her father won’t be who we met in the first chapter, and Cleo has to fight her distrust while not really having many other choices than either going with him or being all alone. Gradually, she learns to accept this new balance in her life, learn to follow at first, then fight a little, then fight more. And while she is obviously sad and has her small breaking points, she also keeps her smile and courage up, and doesn’t give up.

The downside of this fast pace is that it goes a little too quickly at times—especially when there are several panels without dialogues—and as a result, there isn’t that much room for character development. The latter is partly left to the reader to imagine, by filling in the blanks, but this is a somewhat uneventful process, and leaves a slight feeling of blankness at times.

Nevertheless, I did like this first volume, as well as its ending (both positive and at the same time highlighting the protagonists’ fight as “one against the world”, so to speak). 3 to 3.5 stars.

The Chalk Man

The Chalk Man - C.J. Tudor

[I originally received a copy of this book through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It just took me ages to get to it.]

Kinda OK in terms of the storyline, but this is one of the books that felt “I’m going to like it” in the beginning, and in fact… Well, no.

The 1986 parts were more striking in my opinion than the 2016 ones, perhaps because of the whole dynamics involving kids living their last summer before leaving childhood and becoming teenagers, drifting off from each other… only not completely, never completely, because of that one last tie, that one thing they discovered together and that filled them with horror.

From there, I was hoping that the 2016 arc would see them get together and come to grips with the “evil from the past”, so to speak, but… let’s be honest, that didn’t happen, not really, apart from a few scenes with Ed meeting his chums at the bar or taking the train to have coffee once with another of his former friends. So, the 2016 narrative plodded its way along and wasn’t the thrilling ride I had expected.

The mystery part has a few turns and twists, with Eddie’s dreams/visions blurring the boundary; he may or may not be affected by the same illness that took away his father; or having had an actual hand in the misdeeds committed; and while these plot points were somewhat of the expected kind, they still worked at the moment they happened. Still, I found that the beginnings of plots threads that I found exciting fell flat in the end, and rested on clichés clearly present to elicit some sensationalism (the casket, the dog, the character who gets blamed and commits suicide, the coat at the bottom of the wardrobe, etc.). It may have worked in other circumstances, other stories. Not here.

I had a beef, too, with the issues that were tackled throughout the story. The abortion clinic part was accurate enough—all it takes it to look at the daily news right now to see that the same hypocrisy about the whole “pro-life” movement is here and strong as ever—but the question of abuse (sexual and otherwise) was frankly not dealt with well. There’s one assault in particular that just gets dismissed as “it wasn’t so bad”, and seriously, are we still on about this? It is ALWAYS bad. And it doesn’t only happen to girls, or to people who “look like they deserve” it, or whatever other crap the rape culture continuously feed us.

The ending didn’t work for me either. When the actual culprit is revealed, it just feels like it’s coming out of nowhere, and is quite unbelievable. The way it looked to me, there were all those threads about hidden horrors that suddenly needed coming together, and so were tied at the last moment into something that didn’t make that much sense.

(Also, I may be mistaken because I haven’t read these books in 25 years or so, but quite a few scenes were reminiscent of older King novels, and I couldn’t tell whether it was simple homage, or pretty much the same scenes in a different writing style.)

The Warehouse

The Warehouse - Rob Hart

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

In a not-so-distant-future America, where most of society has collapsed, Paxton and Zinnia get hired in the same Cloud facility, each for their own reasons. As they start seeing each other more and more, and confirm (more than realise, to be honest) that their jobs aren’t as shiny as the recruitment ads would let people think, their own deadlines loom over them: for Paxton, the visit of Cloud’s CEO; for Zinnia, her actual job, that is, finding out what really powers Cloud’s warehouses.

Not so much a thriller per se, although there is definitely an element of mystery when it comes to “what powers the Cloud facilities”, as well as a couple of other things. More than that, “The Warehouse” is part social commentary about corporate practices pushed to an extreme we may, in fact, not be so far of: living at your workplace, eating at your workplace, with your days governed by your employee rating, until the line between both tends to blur and losing your job doesn’t only mean “losing your financial means” but pretty much “losing your whole life” as well—there’s very little hope for any other kind of employment out there. Cloud is most obviously a future Amazon, but also Uber and all other workplaces where one is just but a cog in the machine—and just as replaceable—all the while being lured in by shiny promises of being a “valued employee”.

In terms of story, I enjoyed it general, but I admit I didn’t feel that much invested in the characters, perhaps because a lot of their interactions was coloured by the daily grind of their respective jobs, which made the pace slower than I would’ve liked it. I liked the couple of twists towards the end (I had already guessed who was Zinnia’s employer, though it’s always good to see one’s theory vindicated)—I was expecting maybe something a tad bit more gruesome, but what actually happened was still good. I was, however, left unsatisfied by the very end itself, I guess due to the way it dwindled down rather than stopping on a “high” (it was back to the grind, sort of, which was like going out with a whimper rather than with a bang). Fitting, in a way, considering the prospects of one's life at Cloud; less fitting for me in terms of storytelling.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. Enjoyable, but I think I was expecting more from it.

The Broken Girls

The Broken Girls - Simone St. James

[I originally got a copy through Edelweiss.]

“The Broken Girls” intertwines two storylines: that of four students at Idlewild Hall in 1950, and that, in 2014, of Fiona Sheridan, a journalist whose elder sister was found murdered twenty years ago—at Idlewild. As Fiona investigates the family who’s just bought the old school to refurbish it, haunted by what happened to her sister, the discovery of yet another body on these ground sends her into looking more and more into the past, and to unveil what happened to the girls.

The story was relatively gripping, but the 1950 part interested me much more, perhaps because reading about the girls and their friendship in a place where all the pupils were more or less rejected by their families: orphans with only remote relatives who didn’t want to bring them up, girls who witnessed something horrible, girls who were assaulted, or illegitimate daughters… Idlewild Hall had that reputation of “a school for girls who cause problems”, but a lot of those problems were the product of that time more than of the children themselves: people didn’t want to talk about the fruit of adultery, or about that girl who couldn’t speak after being traumatised, so they bundled them up to that boarding school to get rid of them. And through these different yet oddly similar stories, the bond that united the four friends developed into a really strong one, that was so easily felt throughout their chapters.

By contrast, Fiona’s story was more… conventional. A journalist with her relationships troubles, still trying to come up to grips with her sister’s murder, wanting to investigate the place of said murder, uncovering quite a few things that hadn’t been spoken of at the time… Not uninteresting per se, but not particularly exciting either.

In a way, I also felt that the 2014 arc tried to deal with too many things at the same time: was the murderer really the culprit, or was he set up; Deb’s murdered (almost every chapter); a ghost; corruption; the motives of the wealthy family who bought the Hall; tragic pasts dating back to World War II… Some of these weren’t fully exploited—the ghost subplot, for instance, felt like it was hovering between bona fide supernatural, and something with a completely mundane explanation, and in the end, the whole thing fell flat.

Conclusion: I would’ve liked this much more if it had been all about the girls in 1950, to be fair.

Seeking the Truth (Through Lya's Eyes - 1)

Through Lya's Eyes (Seeking the Truth Vol 1) - Elisa Carbone, Justine Cunha

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A fairly good story about Lya, a young woman who’s been left a paraplegic after a hit-and-run when she was 17. Four years have passed, and she’s as decided as ever to find out what really happened: the person who hit her left her for dead and never alerted anyone, which meant she was discovered only hours later… a few hours that made all the difference between her getting her ability to walk back and remaining in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. So, her investigation and her motives are definitely understandable, and something that made me root for her.

I found the drawing style really beautiful, all in softness and subtlety (the black/dark line-art that’s very typical of comics is absent here), while also deftly making use of different colour palettes depending on the atmosphere it depicts, especially reds and blues.

The characters, in general, are engaging, even though they’re not necessarily very deep: Lya is brave and determined (not only to discover the truth, but also simply to live her life without letting her disability get in the way). Her best friend, Antoine, supports her all the way in both these endeavours, and helps her as best as he can. Adèle, the receptionist, is a bubbly young woman who immediately helps Lya get her marks at the practice. De Villegan, the lawyer, is antipathic and yells at his own intern, and looks like the perfect villain. There is room for more surprises in that regard, but their roles are quickly and easily defined, with the clichés this implies.

The investigation itself is not complex, as mostly what Lya needs it to read a file kept at the practice, but the story doesn’t shy away from limitations that an able-bodied person wouldn’t mean: the archives are only accessible by stairs, and so Lya has to be creative as to how she’s going to access them—getting discouraged and giving up is never an option for her. The downside for me was that while she encountered setbacks, I thought they were (too) easily circumvented, so there wasn’t so much tension to speak of here.

This first volume ends on a strong cliffhanger, and I guess this will be a make-it-or-break-it-deal for more than one person. This said, I did find it quite appropriate: if you’re going to have a cliffhanger, might as well have this one (and not one based on something else in the story).

Conclusion: 3 stars because all in all, I liked the story and the art, and want to read volume 2, but the pacing and tension could’ve been handled better.

The Farm

The Farm - Joanne Ramos

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

At some point, this book was touted as a dystopia and somewhat compared to “The Handmaid’s Tale”, at least in certain blurbs I saw back then, but lest readers approach it thinking they’re going into a dystopian read: it is not (and expecting it to be would probably do it disservice). Or, at least, it’s not more dystopian than the world we currently live in, where you can get everything anyway if you’re wealthy enough (including surrogate mothers).

The story follows four characters: Jane, a naïve Filipina-American girl who gets roped into becoming a “Host” at Golden Oaks (the “Farm” from the title); Ate, her shrewd cousin who is intent on making money in order to take care of her family back in the Philippines; Mae, the Golden Oaks’ director, banking on this new lucrative business to secure her end-of-year bonus; and Reagan, a “Premium Host” who’s been wooed by Mae to carry the child of a billionaire woman from China.

One thing is to be said about Golden Oaks, for starters: it is incredibly believable—if such a place doesn’t already exist somewhere, surely it will exist at some point? A golden prison whose “inmates” submitted themselves voluntarily in exchange for fat money incentives and bonuses, it has a lot of advantages (healthy food, exercise, massages… all in all, quite “privileged” surroundings), but also clearly plays a part in the kind of exploitation that is already going on, when it comes to people (especially of immigrant backgrounds) who can’t be choosers when it comes to jobs.

While it’s not a clear-cut dystopia, the world of “The Farm” nevertheless deals with contemporary problems that do have a whiff of dystopia, namely class and exploitation. Mae and her people (her clients included) go about this with a complete dichotomy of recruiting the Hosts by showing Golden Oaks as a sort of luxury retreat and their role as surrogates as meaningful and contributing to the good in the world… and at the same time, the Hosts are given numbers (not to their faces), and discussed in terms of class and backgrounds. This why Reagan, for instance, is a Premium Host and chosen to carry a very special baby: she’s white, from a clearly upper-middle-class family, she majored cum laude from Duke University, and she’s pretty to boot. Clients can subscribe to different “packages”, and a Reagan will always have more worth than a Jane. At some point, Mae and her boss even discuss introducing a new level, that of impoverished white women from blue-collar families, as a sort of “Premium-at-a-discount”. In itself, it is positively disgusting, and capitalism pushed to a very visible extreme, without any shame. The whole thing is all the more disturbing that Mae’s narrative makes it appear as somewhat sensible: of course, the Hosts are well-compensated—although differently depending on whether they’re Premium or not…

This said, there were a few things that seriously bothered me here:

- The story is told in the third person and in the present tense. I’m not too keen on whole books written this way. It was tolerable, but I can only stomach that much. Probably a case of “it’s not the book, it’s me”, though.

- Jane is clearly of this brand of people who continuously make the worst decisions and choose the worst course of action at the worst moment possible (acknowledged in the novel itself, as Reagan reflects upon this). It makes for plot twists, sure, and it plays into the how the book indeed denounces the exploitation of immigrants, who don’t necessarily know all the “rules” when it comes to becoming part of their host country. Yet at the same time, it made Jane rather worthy of several eye rolls, and also sends some sort of underlying message that, well, she’s so naïve and stupid, so surely it’s her fault for getting into such situations. I’m always on the fence with such characters. I do not want to play the victim blaming game, because that’s rubbish, but it’s not so easy either to find her endearing rather than annoying.

- I’m still not sure of where the story wanted to go. There’s a looming thread of vaguely impending doom through the narrative, as if something really sinister is lurking, but that “something”, in the end, doesn’t materialise, or not the way you would expect. Whatever happens is mostly the product of short-sightedness on the part of the people involved (yes, Mae as well): because they don’t communicate properly, or because they fail to realise that continuously giving incentives to people and then taking them away at the last moment is NOT a good way of ensuring things will go smoothly. The situation unfolding in the last third or so is the result of one huge misunderstanding, and considering the degree of monitoring at Golden Oaks and Mae’s suppose shrewdness, it’s like several people just forgot their brains somewhere at some point. (Ate and her friends are not immune to that either, by the way.)

So, “The Farm” had an important message, but that message wasn’t delivered efficiently through storytelling, which muddled it.

- The characters are rather one-dimensional. Jane is the naïve immigrant who is constantly exploited. Mae is the exploiter and that’s all. Reagan is the typical woke girl struggling with her privilege but not realising that the good she wants to do may just be tainted. Lisa is kinda the resident sex addict and gossipmonger. Apart from these, I’m still not sure who exactly they are.

- The ending was… abrupt? The epilogue dragged a little, while the actual resolution, right before it, pretty much happened behind closed doors.

Conclusion: A good theme to tackle, and chilling when you realise that the way it’s presented makes it appear “sensible” while still underlining its inhuman aspects, so as a reader, you’re never left off the hook in that regard. On the other hand, I found it fell flat, and I never really connected with the characters.

P.S. Regarding the aforementioned comparison with “The Handmaid’s Tale”: publishing houses should stop doing that, because more often than not, it makes me wonder if the people writing those “comparison blurbs” have actually read the book(s) involved. Mostly the common point here is “surrogate mothers”, but “The Farm” never gets to THT’s horrifying level. Let’s be clear here: that’s not a fault of the novel, which is still interesting in its own ways. But I feel such comparisons do harm, since more than just one reader will pick the book because of this comparison, and consequently be disappointed.

The Way of All Flesh

The Way of all Flesh  - Ambrose Parry

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A novel that was more interesting for its historical research (anaesthetics, medicine and its practitioners) and its location (Edinburgh—yes, I’m biased) than for its actual mystery, to be honest.

So I really liked the setting, revisiting this city with a Victorian twist to boot, and looking for the Easter eggs laid here and there (Edinburgh was pretty famous when it came to medicine, and more than one name in the novel was an actual historical figure). With Will Raven and Dr Simpson being sent to attend several patients across town, including in less savoury areas, there was ample opportunity for some sightseeing along the way, and to get a glimpse of Edinburgh in the mid-19th century.

You can also tell that a lot of research was done when it came to anaesthesia and medicine in that era (one of the authors making up the Ambrose Parry pen name was actually inspired to write this novel by her research for her own thesis, and there is indeed a lot of information deserving to be exploited here). I never had any trouble picturing the various procedures, as gruesome as some were (surgery and amputations, ehhh), and to even read between the lines when a specific procedure erred on the side of euphemism due to its “unspeakable” nature.

The mystery itself, though, was less interesting, in that it unfolded at a slow pace while also being too obvious with its clues—I could sense the culprit coming already in the first half of the book. The characters are somewhat enjoyable, but get too mired down in their own backstories from the onest (Raven has a dark past and is also running away from his creditors, Sarah reflects every day upon her bleak prospects, Mina keeps lamenting about not having found a husband yet…): things that are in keeping with the era, especially regarding the role of women as “Angels of the Home”, but that also contribute to the slow pace until things are properly in place.

There are also quite a few cliché scenes that are worthy of an eye roll, notably the attempts at “romantic” situations—I counted three times when the characters are stuck in a tiny room/dive into an alley to avoid being seen, and are of course pressed against each other, and suddenly feel the need to kiss. Yeah, whatever. I’m no fan of romance in general, and these were very contrived means of pushing it that didn’t work at all.

Conclusion: Good for the historical background, less so for the mystery and characters.

The Dark Net

The Dark Net - Benjamin Percy

(To be fair, I actually got a review copy through Edelweiss, but didn't get to the book at the time due to... probably too many other books to read. Story of my life.)

It's a decent novel. It didn't exactly deal with what the blurbs mentions. From the latter, you'd think it's a techno-thriller involving the Deep Web, groups like Anonymous, the Silk Road, and so on. But the 'Net, while playing a part, is not as much involved as more traditional urban fantasy/horror elements: 'the Light' vs. 'the Dark', an immortal who prolongs her body's current life through blood transfusions, an ex-child evangelist now running a shelter by day and hunting monsters by night, demons...

I did like the way the Deep Net was involved: as a new turf for a war between Light and Dark, with means of action relying on people's obsession with their smartphones, GPS, and connected technology in general. That was a good plot point. I also liked Hannah's 'Mirage' apparatus, in the first chapter of the book, where it is hinted that thanks to it, she's now able to see more than meet the eye.

The story is packed with action, the characters don't really get a chance to rest, and even when they think they do, well, Evil never sleeps, right? As a result, though, it was also difficult to care much about them—so when there were dead people, I barely noticed them.

The more traditional horror/UF elements were also a slight let-down. As much as I like these in general, here, I felt that the technological angle took the back burner at times (one of the characters is actually a technophobe). Perhaps I resented the blurb misleading me more than I thought, too? I would've been more interested in a truly cyberpunk-cum-supernatural angle, rather than the contrary.